my wayfaring stranger
The song Wayfaring Stranger is incredibly old. Its lyrics tell the story of someone returning home (or hoping to at least). But sadly, the person in song realizes death is much more realistic than the possibility of ever seeing familiar faces again. The few verses of hope, memories, and the acceptance of suffering with unwavering faith is what has kept this song alive for hundreds of years. From the 18th century to today you’ll find people humming it on dirt roads and midtown elevators alike.
This is the story of my Wayfaring Stranger.
The ballad didn’t become familiar to me until I lived in Knoxville. Maybe I heard it in passing, but it didn’t stick. However, my good friend Brian (an ex-New Yorker who's life I fell into because we shared a love for the mountains and happened to work in the same office) introduced me to it’s lonesome beauty as if for the first time. When we were driving through the Smoky Mountains, bobbing his black pickup over the winding cove roads he’d turn it up and sing. Not just sing, but really sing it. Meaning every word of it for all it was worth. I’d hear his voice on those southern mountain roads and for the first time listened to what the lyrics meant. Just thinking about Brian makes me miss him like crazy. He introduced me to trout streams and hidden hikes. He got me into Pablo Neruda, and shared the front seat of his truck with me often. We were just friends, but both hopeless romantics when it came to our love affair with the mountains. So it made our friendship a geographical thing. Which, was neat. I can't see a black pickup truck and not think of him, I haven't spoken to him in years.
It was like going to a monastery. Simple. Poignant. As we rolled through the hollers, passing dilapidated barns and cabins long-abandoned, their emptiness and rot echoed the lines of the song. If the world had anything else to say to me, I couldn’t hear it while that song played.
Wayfaring Stranger became Tennessee. It became every state I've lived in since home. I adopted the song. I memorized the words. I learned it on the dulcimer. When someone else played it at a concert or campfire I became quiet. Church was in session.
When I left Knoxville to move out west. I knew I was repeating the story of thousands of Tennesseans who also left their cities and farms for the Homestead Act of the mid 1800s. How many others had loaded up their wagons with their family like I was? Grant it, my wagon was a station - not a Conestoga, and my family was two sleeping sled dogs in the backseat and not seven children, but hey, at the root of it I loved them and together we were heading into unknown territory. And on the car stereo as we rolled out of town with tears streaming down my face we listened to Wayfaring Stranger. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that in 1887, a family from Knox country mouthed the same exact same words I did as we headed past St. Louis and up into the plains.
There was comfort in the repitition, and while it may sound silly, it brought me immense comfort. They sang that song and were okay, Denver and San Francisco and Seattle are standing testament that for some it all worked out. I would be okay too.
When I was established and at home in the Rockies, and the violin became my musical love interest, I learned to play it the way it was meant to be played – on the fiddle (then on the banjo sometime later). I learned to close my eyes and mean it when I played that tune. I learned to let the whole song fill me up and even if an accomplished musician told me it sounded like garbage I didn’t care. The song was too good for one bad musician to screw up. It could soar out of my bow with right intentions. That’s all that mattered.
Monday I head back East, back home. With me will come my two dogs, my musical instruments, and again we’ll be singing Wayfaring Stranger as we drive past Deadwood, and Wall Drug and Chicago and back into the place where thunderstorms and fireflies are writhing all summer long. We’ll stop in Palmerton for a few nights, and when we do we will be living the hope that that song so strongly conveyed—to go out into the wilderness and come back again.
And that’s what I plan to do. After all, I’m only going over Jordan. I'm only going over home.