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1: The Appalachian Longing for Home

February 19, 2008

Musicologists debate the origins of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”. According to some, it arose out of the southern Appalachians about the time of the Revolutionary War. “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” has been variously called a “spiritual, American spiritual, folk-spiritual, Negro spiritual, traditional Southern spiritual, Southern folk-hymn, spiritual folk-ballad, religious ballad, hymn.” In the Southern Appalachians there were English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and marks of African influence on this old song.

This conflux of so many possibilities coming together makes this song just the right song to inaugurate what we’re about here: to find tokens of God’s good work, and tokens of the human quest for God, in some facet of every human endeavor. And thus in these old Appalachian songs, we hear the longing for a new place, a new home. So many of those early country songs with Appalachian roots are songs of displacement—songs gof having no home, no place at the table, without work, without community. No place, no people, no name, no home—one finds lyrics such as these repeatedly in the biblical canon.

When Ralph Peer, a talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company came down from New York City to the southern Appalachians in 1927, his makeshift recording session in a warehouse in Bristol, TN later became known as the Big Bang of Country Music. There he recorded the likes of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers, music they sang, lofty as love, mundane as shucking corn; songs of faith, lament, hope, home. The songs of lament in those Appalachian hills became an early staple, born of the real experience of the hardships of line in a new land, born of the real experience of rural poverty. The Carter family themselves were from a place called Poor Valley, Virginia. A.P. Carter would later sing, “I’m Going To A Place Where There’s No Depression.”

We call such songs “eschatological.” Eschaton is a word which means the end or goal or purpose of all things, of all human history? And how and when shall it come? The blues and spirituals point to the coming of a different kind of world, where wrongs are made right, oppression is cast off, and we can be at home.

So tonight we particularly explore that oft-recurring theme of the longing for home, a longing for place—a longing for a place where one is not a stranger.