Remember the long history of When the Roses Bloom Again? Well this week’s song has it beat… by well over 100 years! Wayfaring Stranger is a classic Appalachian tune dating back to at least the late 1700s. Like many songs from this era, its origins are murky at best, with some believing it to be a Negro spiritual, an Irish folk song, or even a reworked version of a song played by Native Americans in the region.
However, the most commonly believed (and most intriguing) theory is that it was written by the mysterious Melungeon people of the Cumberland Gap region. The Melungeons were a group of mixed-race people of unknown origin located throughout Appalachia who, at one time, lived a somewhat nomadic lifestyle. It’s believed that the song’s lyrics, about the difficulty of life as a traveler and the rest they’d have in the afterlife, reflects this lifestyle.
What is known is that Wayfaring Stranger is one of the most popular Appalachian songs of all time. There are over 200 known professionally recorded versions! The first national hit version was by Burl Ives, the famous singer and actor (most remembered today for his starring role in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). He was so popularly identified with the song that he named his folk music radio show after it!
Burl Ives’ version is great (you can’t go wrong with that melody!), but it lacks the classic mountain musical arrangement of the original folk tune. Fortunately, many of the later versions stayed true to the Appalachian roots of the song. Bill Monroe’s arrangement from 1958 has the rustic beauty and excellent instrumentation that we now associate with bluegrass music.
Since then, Wayfaring Stranger has been covered by hundreds of other performers in just about every style imaginable. The song was made famous again in 2000, when it was covered by the Man in Black, Johnny Cash (on his third American album), then again by rocker Jack White for the Appalachian Civil War movie Cold Mountain. The song has been firmly established as a classic in the genre and a great jumping-in place for people who love hearing how many different ways a song can be interpreted!
Do you have a version of Wayfaring Stranger? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share Got Mountain Life on Facebook!