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Burl Ives - Wayfaring Stranger (American spiritual / folk song)

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Published on Apr 13, 2011

Folk singer Burl Ives sings the American spiritual / folk song, "The Wayfaring Stranger." The evidence of the origins of "The Wayfaring Stranger" is unclear. Musicologists in particular have disputed whether the song was originally a white or black spiritual. For example, George Pullen Jackson claimed that the song had its origins among the white mountain folk of Appalachia (White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands: The Story of the Fasola Folk, Their Songs, Singings, and "Buckwheat Notes". University of North Carolina Press, 1933). Some more recent musicologists have disputed this claim, suggesting that its origins rested in the enslaved African-American community potentially as far back as the colonial period. Professor David Warren Steel criticizes some proponents of this view in his book review, "Folk Songs of the Catskills: A Review," Journal of Musicological Research 5 (November 1984), pp. 260-264:

"The authors, like other critics of George Pullen Jackson's 'white spiritual' hypothesis, correctly point out errors and misunderstandings that led Jackson and others to assume a prior currency for these songs in white southern tradition. But does it follow, then, that one can assume that their origin lies in black tradition? The authors, perhaps for ideological reasons, saw a conspiracy at work.

'The apparent and suspicious confusion of claimed dates of origin of Poor Wayfaring Stranger fits into a pattern of another sort. At best, it represents ignorance, at worst a deliberate concealment, of the origin of the spiritual text among black singers.' (p. 295)

"This conclusion is based upon the assumption that Howard Odum's 1909 printing from black tradition represents the earliest authentic documentation of the text. John F. Garst (1980), however, has traced several nineteenth-century appearances of the text, one as early as 1858. They include both northern and southern publications; some imply black transmission, others do not. It appears that the authors of Folk Songs of the Catskills are as willing as Jackson to state unwarranted assumptions as fact. Their characterization of the southern shape-note compilers as 'fundamentalist hymnbook pitchmen' reveals their hostility to and misunderstanding of the largely nondenominational singing-school tradition. The spiritual song tradition is neither white nor black, neither northern or southern, but American."

On the other hand, Odum and Johnson note in The Negro and His Songs (Univ. North Carolina Press, 1925 (reprint by Negro Universities Press, 1968 etc.), p. 137-138.):

"[The Pilgrim's Song a.k.a. The Wayfaring Stranger] may be called a standard hymn of the Negroes. There is a story that Bishop Allen, the founder of the African M. E. Church, composed the song on his dying bed...While the sadly hopeful words of the song are of a higher type than the average spiritual, and while its metrical form is far above the usual, the song still combines many of the ideas and phrases of the favorite spirituals of the slaves."

The current Sacred Harp Hymnal (1991) claims the tune for the Wayfaring Stranger was written in 1935 by John M. Dye, but that the lyrics originally came from the Bever's Christian Songster originally published in 1858.

Prof. John F. Garst, in his research on this song, found that an 1882 version published in the United States was the first published source to include both these lyrics and this tune, although he found some related songs from earlier times.

Early published versions of the song can be found in:

-Revival and Camp Meeting Minstrel. Philadelphia: Perkinpine & Higgins, 1867, p.272. [lyrics]

-Taylor, M.W., Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies M.W. Taylor and W.C. Echols, Publishers, Cincinnati, 1883; c1882. no.55 p. 95. [lyrics & tune--possible earliest published source]

-Buchanan, Annabel Morris, Folk hymns of America. New York: J. Fischer [c1938], p. xxvii & 66.

Some researchers suggest that the tune for the song may originally have come from Britain or Ireland, as was the case with so many early American folk songs. However, I've not found any evidence that even the melody, much less the melody and the lyrics, are actually British, and the song is typically taken as American within scholarly communities. If anyone has any evidence about this, please let me know. I would certainly be happy to revise my views in the face of hard evidence.

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