Wayfaring musicians

From many months ago, a pointer to an  astonishing performance of the American folk/gospel song Wayfaring Stranger by Rhiannon Giddens, with Francesco Turrisi, from their album there is no Other:

(#1) You can listen to the track here (#2)

Giddens first, then the song, which has considerable personal meaning for me.

Giddens. Basic facts from Wikipedia:

(#3) Giddens wielding her banjo (photo from Michael Weintrob // WUNC 91.5)

Rhiannon Giddens (born February 21, 1977) is an American musician. She is a founding member of the country, blues and old-time music band Carolina Chocolate Drops, where she is the lead singer, fiddle player, and banjo player.

Giddens is a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, an alumna of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, and a 2000 graduate of Oberlin Conservatory at Oberlin College, where she studied opera.

(Yes, opera. Training which cultivated her powerful voice, with a wide range and very fine control of dynamics.)

#3 is from a 9/17/15 Portside interview “Meet Rhiannon Giddens, A Singer Revitalizing Old-Time’s Black Roots” by Charlie Shelton & Frank Stasio:

Meet Greensboro, North Carolina native Rhiannon Giddens; see and hear why she has taken the music world by storm. Hear her music, and that of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. See why she is stretching the borders of traditional folk music, blues, country and old-time music.

And on the CCDs, from Wikipedia:

(#4) Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, Don Flemons

The Carolina Chocolate Drops is an old-time string band from Durham, North Carolina.

… Formed in November 2005, following the members’ attendance at the first Black Banjo Gathering, held in Boone, North Carolina, in April 2005, the group grew out of the success of Sankofa Strings, an ensemble that featured Dom Flemons on bones, jug, guitar, and four-string banjo, Rhiannon Giddens on banjo and fiddle and Súle Greg Wilson on bodhrán, brushes, washboard, bones, tambourine, banjo, banjolin, and ukulele, with Justin Robinson as an occasional guest artist. All shared vocals. The purpose of Sankofa Strings was to present a gamut of African American musics: country and classic blues, early jazz and “hot music”, string band numbers, African and Caribbean songs, and spoken word pieces. The Chocolate Drops’ original three members: Giddens, Flemons, and Robinson, were all in their twenties when the group formed after Flemons’ move from Phoenix (where he and Wilson lived), to North Carolina, home of Giddens and Robinson. Wilson, nearly a generation older than the other Drops, was occasionally featured with the group into 2010, including contributions to the recordings, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, CCD and Joe Thompson, Heritage (with songs culled from Sankofa Strings’ independently-released CD, Colored Aristocracy) and nearly half of Genuine Negro Jig. All of the musicians sing and trade instruments including banjo, fiddle, guitar, harmonica, snare drum, bones, jug, and kazoo. The group learned much of their repertoire, which is based on the traditional music of the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, from the eminent African American old-time fiddler Joe Thompson, although they also perform old-time versions of some modern songs such as Blu Cantrell’s R&B hit “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!).”

You can watch here (#5) the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Joe Thompson (88 at the time), performing “John Henry” (in July 2007 in a small un-amplified showcase concert).

But wait, there’s more; recall #1. From an NPR review by Ann Powers on 4/25/19, “Rhiannon Giddens’ ‘There Is No Other’ Finds Freedom In Intimacy”:

… In music, the voices for freedom that also risk intimacy resonate the most profoundly. Think of Aretha Franklin finding gospel truth in Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” or Nina Simone turning songwriter Oscar Brown, Jr.’s black pride lullaby “Brown Baby” into a truly revolutionary transmission.

Rhiannon Giddens turns her exquisite voice and sensibility toward this psychic territory on There is No Other [AZ: actually, there is no Other], her new collaboration with the Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. The duo’s intellectual project links Giddens’ usual field of inquiry – the folk instruments and traditions of the African-American diaspora – with those of Turrisi, a pianist and master of the frame drum who dwells in the Mediterranean slipstreams from the Middle East and North Africa to Southern Europe. The album’s title declares opposition to the social practice of “othering,” or dismissing the subjectivity of those marked as outsiders. This directive manifests in the way their arrangements blend Arabic, European and African-American influences, showing the ease with which the boundaries of genre and nationality can be broken through music.

Giddens and Turisi took their show on the road, insisting on two events at each of their stops: a lecture “there is no Other: Musical Routes to Racial Justice” (they take their moral purpose very seriously); and a big public concert. They came to Stanford in February, with the lecture on 2/6 in the Bechtel Conference Center in Encina Hall, and the concert in Bing Concert Hall on 2/7. (And then everything closed down.)

“Wayfaring Stranger”. From Wikipedia:

“The Wayfaring Stranger” (also known as “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” or “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger”), Roud 3339, is a well-known American folk and gospel song likely originating in the early 19th century about a plaintive soul on the journey through life. As with most folk songs, many variations of the lyrics exist.

Notable covers and uses:

In 1935 an arrangement was included in The Sacred Harp shape note songbook.

It became one of Burl Ives’ signature songs, included on his 1944 album The Wayfaring Stranger. Ives used it as the title of his early 1940s CBS radio show and his 1948 autobiography. [I seem to have forgotten this; I must have heard it as a child.]

… Emmylou Harris covered the song on her 1980 album Roses in the Snow.

… Natalie Merchant covers “The Wayfaring Stranger” (as “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”) in her own arrangement on her 2003 album “The House Carpenter’s Daughter.”

Singer/actor Jack White recorded “Wayfaring Stranger” in the 2003 film Cold Mountain

I came to the song through the Denson Sacred Harp. From the 1991 revision:


“I am a poor, wayfaring stranger / While journ’ying through this world of woe”

(but the traveler looks forward to transcending these worldly woes in life after death: “I want to wear a crown of glory”)

You can watch here (#7) SH457 being sung at the Second Ireland Sacred Harp Convention (2012).

And Emmylou Harris’s luminous 1980 recording of the folk/gospel song, which you can listen to here (#8).

And then Johnny Cash, who was pretty much born to sing such mournful songs; you can listen here (#9) to his plaintive performance from American III: Solitary Man (2000).

On the personal front, the song speaks to me poignantly because I have always felt I had no actual home, only places where I could negotiate being tolerated because I could entertain or enlighten or be useful. When I first learned SH457, it tended to make me weep despairingly (I mean, I didn’t believe in life after death, so no crown of glory for me, just journeying through this world of woe). There is no real place for me –but  the saving grace is precious affiliations with individual people, connections I can carry with me wherever I trudge.

One Response to “Wayfaring musicians”

  1. Margaret Winters Says:

    We saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops a couple of times in Ann Arbor, once at the Folk Festival and once, I think, at the Ark which is the AA folk club. They were great then and she’s got better and better.

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