My Friend, The Wayfaring Stranger

Listening the other day to Ed Sheeran singing Wayfaring Stranger, I got to thinking about how familiar this song has become to me. I’ve lost count of the number of renditions I’ve heard over the years, most of them good, some exceptional.

Thinking on it a little further, I realised that the song has acted as a kind of musical marker for me.

Over the years I have found that in discovering my favourite musicians, I have also found a version of this song hidden away in their repertoire. A great number of these are live recordings, which goes to show what a great concert showpiece it can be.

A number of my favourite musicians have recorded this beautiful American Spiritual, too many to list here. Instead, I thought I’d share my five favourite renditions:

#5 Alison Krauss

I heard this version on an album called “Masters of the Folk Violin”. Alison was still pretty young at the time; in fact, she was probably still a teenager. I love her singing on this, but really, it’s all about the violin for me. As a fiddler, she has few peers. This recording is a live performance from around the same time.

#4 Emmylou Harris

I’d been an Emmylou fan for some time before I heard this song on her “Roses in the Snow” album. I guess it takes a while to find some albums, you’re meant to find them when you do. I love the album, and this is one of the standouts. Again, this is a live performance from around the time of the album’s release in 1980.

#3 Eva Cassidy

As well as having an extraordinary voice, Eva Cassidy’s interpretative skills were seemingly boundless. Her version on the album “Eva by Heart” is a faster, less traditional take, but retains the spiritual fervour of the song.  I have a particular soft spot for this version, as it was my introduction to Wayfaring Stranger. This is the album cut.

#2 Tim Buckley

This one is very close to my favourite, and it is certainly my favourite vocal. This is the only recording I have heard of Buckley singing Wayfaring Stranger, but if anyone knows of any others, I’d love to know. This performance from Queen Elizabeth Hall, London in 1968 was released posthumously on the album “Dream Letter”. The whole album is a gift for Buckley fans. Buckley pours his soul into the song, challenging the listener to walk in the stranger’s shoes, just as Buckley does. As always, Tim puts everything on the line. It blows me away every time, without fail.

#1 Roy Buchanan

Roy recorded this as “Wayfaring Pilgrim”. I know, it’s an instrumental. For me, the point of all music is to express a feeling or emotion, whatever that may be. In this case, that emotion is overwhelmingly spiritual. In my opinion Roy does that better than anyone else on this song. He connects so completely with the song and the listener that you forget that you’re not listening to any words. You don’t need them. For me, it’s that good.

This performance is the best, in my humble opinion. It’s from his 1974 album “In the Beginning” (known as “Rescue Me” outside of the USA).

There are so many beautiful renditions of this song, my selection doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. I’d be very interested to hear of anyone else’s personal favourites, especially any rare recordings or unusual arrangements.

I’ve always felt that deeply personal songs like Wayfaring Stranger deserve a personal response, so thanks for taking the time to listen to mine.

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