THE POOR WAYFARING STRANGER:


It’s been a while since I just wrote about a song (the others are here and here), and even though this won’t actually get posted for a week or more, tonight is made for a night of meditating on “Wayfaring Stranger”. This weekend was horribly overshadowed by death with an internet/real life acquaintance losing his wife many decades before he should have, and our tech guru, Trevor, losing a pet. I know some of you have no idea how sad losing a pet can be, but anyone who’s ever lost a household pet knows how dark that grieving process can actually be. To both Don and Trevor I offer my deepest condolences, and in my own weird way I’m writing about this song for y’all.

“The Wayfaring Stranger” or “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, like most traditional folk songs, is of an unknown and oft-disputed origin. Depending on who you ask, the song’s origins are Appalachian Folk, Old Irish, or Catskills Folk, with some even theorizing that its origins rest in the Negro Spirituals and that there was a deliberate concealment of the song’s origins. Based on my own limited knowledge and experience from researching other traditional folk songs, I get the feeling that it either started in the slave fields of the old South or came to the Appalachian people via the Irish. Like most other traditional American folk songs there are thousands of variations of “Wayfaring Stranger”, which take great liberties in title, melody, harmony and lyrics. The version we’re most familiar with now was popularized in the middle of the twentieth century by musical researchers and performers such as Pete Seeger and Burl Ives.

The song tells of a wayfaring stranger’s hardships and struggles on this mortal coil and the final reward of reuniting with their loved ones in the afterlife. It has been covered by more people than you can shake a stick at, but here are some of my favorites:

The Standard:

Burl Ives – Wayfaring Stranger

My Favorites:

Scott H. Biram – Poor, Wayfaring Stranger
Laura Love – Poor Wayfaring Stranger
Strawfoot – Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger
Eva Cassidy – Wayfaring Stranger

The Best of the Rest:

16 Horsepower – Wayfaring Stranger
Doc WatsonMerle Watson – Wayfaring Stranger
Emmylou Harris – Wayfaring Stranger
Greenland is Melting – Wayfaring Stranger
Jack White – Wayfaring stranger
Johnny Cash – Wayfaring Stranger
Natalie Merchant – Poor Wayfaring Stranger
Neko Case – Wayfaring Stranger

DAVID RAWLINGS MACHINE: A FRIEND OF A FRIEND


The title of David Rawlings’ debut “solo” album, A Friend of a Friend, may be the most appropriate album title since Raw Power. A perennial sideman, Rawlings has most notably backed Gillian Welch though, if you’ve ever seen the two perform, you’re aware of just how colossal a misnomer it is to describe Rawlings’ role as “backing” anyone. More aptly, Rawlings has performed alongside Welch, contributing aching, lonesome harmonies and devastatingly beautiful guitar to every one of Welch’s releases to date. You’ll also find Rawlings behind (or beside) Ryan Adams, Allison Krause, Emmylou Harris, the Wallflowers, Norah Jones, and a host of other artists found on a Starbucks Americana Sampler near you. I suppose one could describe Rawlings’ career as being “under the radar,” but anyone who picked up the O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack should be well acquainted with David Rawlings.

A Friend of a Friend may not propel Rawlings to AAA radio stardom or expand his audience too far beyond those who already shout themselves horse every time he steps up to perform Conor Oberst’s “Method Acting” – which morphs into “Cortez the Killer” on A Friend of a Friend, much the way it does in most of Rawlings’ performances – during Welch’s sets, but something tells me Rawlings didn’t make this record to take the “next step” in his career. A Friend of a Friend doesn’t play at all like some calculated career move, but rather a collection of songs Rawlings felt a connection with, and wanted to record, so he did. My best guess – and this is only a guess – is that’s exactly what it is. It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to envision Rawlings picking and singing these tunes backstage before a gig, or in his living room some Sunday afternoon. There is not a single contrived or inauthentic moment on A Friend of a Friend and, in a sad commentary on the state of the music industry, that’s quite a feat.

Sonically and structurally speaking, the album is essentially another Gillian Welch/David Rawlings album, with Rawlings handling lead vocal duties this time out. Welch is all over the record, as are a number of Rawlings friends (and friends of friends, one assumes). And while A Friend of a Friend meanders at times, the high points – “Ruby,” “It’s Too Easy,” and “Bells of Harlem” among them – are more than engaging enough to compensate for any momentary lulls.

A Friend of a Friend is going to end up on my year-end Top Ten list and I would not be the least bit shocked to see it on a number of others, as well. If nothing else, I sincerely hope this album inspires Rawlings to stand front and center a little more often.

Dave Rawlings – Ruby
Dave Rawlings – It’s Too Easy

Dave Rawlings on myspace, Buy A Friend Of A Friend