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


  1. Great post. I love stuff like this. I think I have a version by the Sadies on my computer at home.

    My condolences to your friends.

  2. I’ve always loved this song. Didn’t know Biram did a cover of it. Is that part of a whole bootleg? The quality is pretty good.

  3. Billie Joe Shaver uses the melody of Wayfaring Stranger for the title cut for his Victory CD, well worth checking out for good storytelling gospel songs and great acoustic guitar pickin’ by Eddy Shaver. Malcom Holcombe uses the melody for the title cut for his CD Not Forgotten, another great work worth checking out.

  4. Masochist that I am, I listened to all of them (except the Watson’s one – link didn’t work). The renditions by Laura Love and Strawfoot really stood out.

    Our friend who lost his wife is a real chin-up, soldier-on kind of guy, but there’s no mistaking this darkness of this hour for him. The extremely sudden loss of his wife came shortly after he has endured multiple emergency hospital visits and a very close escape from his own finality. If all goes well, he will soon be returning to the hospital for a liver transplant. And that’s just the latest of his health struggles.

    If any of you wouldn’t mind, and if you find the words, maybe you could add your support for his burden? I don’t want to publish his email address, so here’s a link to his Twitter account: @DonWaughEsq. Thanks.

    @AIV: Thanks for the gentlemanly treatment. Who’d have thought I was eulogizing poor Maul as I went on about what awesome companion animals cats and rabbits have been for me over your homebrew that Saturday?

    @Aimz: Thank you.

  5. I like the SHB version…also played at the end of The Folk Singer film he’s in. I also have a nice version by Dark Dark Dark on my iPod.

  6. dr trevorkian..I think a few of their songs are kind of cool in a overblown dated retro-kitchy way. They sound something like a cross between procol harum and the soft machine.

    I’ve read all of lovecraft’s works.

    Due to the pre-1923 works being public domain from expired copyright, and the best evidence being that all of his other works are also free from copyright, if you like to read on the computer, iphone, or kindle, you can download super cheap collections from the amazon kindle store. (or find various works online as .txt files).

  7. It’s just not a style of rock I can relate to at all. Strangely, I think, as it’s not a far leap from other rock sub-genres I enjoy. But something about it just completely repulses me.

    I collected a huge number of PDF and TXT books, including some or all of Lovecraft’s writings, and I only by technical books in digital formats these days but after selling or giving away all but about 1% of my books before moving 4,000 miles I decided that some I want enduring, physical copies of some pieces from some authors. Lovecraft, Gibson, Stephenson, Jordan, Lumley, Card, and others.

    I’m still waiting for ebook readers to evolve a bit before I decide to buy non-technical ebooks. I do love Stanza on my iPhone though. Great app.

  8. hey man, i was thinking for myself of putting all the “wayfaring stranger” versions i have on a CD … i love this song … and i guess you missed a few (here must be hundrets of it), but try to check out the one from delaney davidson (new zealand/swiss guy?)
    thanks – nine bullets rule!
    cheers, g.

  9. One of the best dang songs ever, and one of my all time favorites. Thanks for this post.

  10. I’ve never seen a post like this before – awesome. A recent favorite of mines is Jamie Woon’s cover.

    1. We remove the music after 30 days as we’re not an MP3 archive. I’m sure most of these tracks are available on Spotify or on the cheap at Amazon Music.

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