Wayfaring Stranger

Traditional folk hymn, 1780s

What is the mood of this hymn? How does it change through the verses of the song? What words and phrases reinforce the mood of each verse?

Are the phrases "wayfaring stranger," "land of woe," and "dark clouds" meant to be taken literally? What might they be symbols for? Where is the "bright world" and "over Jordan"? What other meanings could these phrases have besides heaven? Reword the song using literal instead of symbolic language. How does its impact change?

What kinds of "sickness, toil, and danger" might the common person face in the late 1700s? Which have become "extinct"? Would you say this line expresses a universal human feeling? Why or why not? What "sickness, toil, and danger" do Americans face today? Why do you think this song is still sung today?

Have you ever felt the feelings expressed by the first verse of this song? What words would you use to describe how you felt? Lonely, lost, hopeless, sad, alien, not belonging. How did you find your way back again to a "bright world"?

Why do people turn to music in hard times? What songs have helped you when you've been down?

"Wayfaring Stranger" performed by Almeda Riddle on Granny Riddles Songs and Ballads, © 1977. Available on Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube.

Featured on this recording is Almeda Riddle (1898–1986), who grew up singing ballads and songs such as this in her home in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. She was taught to sing in the traditional unaccompanied style by her father, who was a fiddler and teacher of shape-note singing. Her characteristic style includes the inflections this song has assumed during the course of many years of being passed aurally from generation to generation.

View the music and lyrics for "Wayfaring Stranger."

Folklorist Annabel Morris Buchanan believed this song first entered the oral tradition of the southern Appalachians in the 1780s.. During the nineteenth century it appeared in shape-note hymn collections and was sung by both Blacks and whites. The words doubtless took on a variety of literal and symbolic meanings for singers from different geographical and cultural circumstances through the tumultuous years of the early nation when people often found themselves far from their ancestral homes.

16th century map showing the first use of Appalachia

Detail of Diego Gutiérrez's 1562 map of the Western Hemisphere, showing the first known use of a variation of the place name "Appalachia." From the map Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio. Library of Congress.

Compare this song to songs in other units:

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" (Unit 3)

"Amazing Grace" (Unit 3)

"Onward Christian Soldiers" (Unit 5)

"We'll Understand It Better By and By" (Unit 6).

Write about a time when you felt like a "poor wayfaring stranger" and how you regained hope that there was a "bright world" ahead. Think about metaphors and symbols you might use to express how you felt. Ask for volunteers to share their stories in small groups.


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