Why do songs stick with us?

Wayfaring Stranger


I have always loved music.

For instance, I remember vividly the first time I stood in the same room with a person who played an acoustic guitar, his metal finger picks striking vibrations on the steel strings of a flat top. And I can feel even now the electricity that coursed through me and set my skin on fire.

I was probably six or seven years old at the time.

I think of this now because of a chance meeting with an old friend this last weekend.

We had not talked in decades.  We did a little catching up, and then he asked me, “Do you remember that old song we used to sing called Wayfaring Stranger?”

For he and I used to sing together as teenagers, a duo formed out of friendship and our shared love for ballads and sad songs.

My friend had a beautiful lyric tenor voice and I sang the bass part, while I accompanied us on a gut string Goya classical guitar.

We played occasional gigs, but mostly sang for our own enjoyment, an experience I am afraid is lost on the current generation of young people who prefer their music piped in, not homemade.

But here’s the thing.

As soon as he mentioned that song, two old men ceased life in the present and traveled through time and space to a moment and location gone now, but as real as the leaves on the pin oak trees that stood next to us.

What is about certain songs that make them reside forever in our souls?

Is it the lyrics?

I am a poor wayfaring stranger, travelling through this world below

There is no sickness, no toil nor danger

In that bright land to which I go.

Is it the melody?

Wayfaring Stranger is an American folk spiritual, several hundred years old.  Few songs last a hundred years, and those that do must tap into a part of the human brain and spirit in such a way that they grab us and won’t let go.

Imagine what it takes to zero in on something so fundamental to the human experience that it resonates with people separated by time and distance, people who do not share a common upbringing, a common set of ideas, a common worldview.

Is it a yearning for a better world?

Lord knows we all yearn for that.

And what makes a song run through our minds in an endless loop for days?

Science can’t explain it.

When my friend asked if I remembered the song, I thought to myself that I not only remembered it, but also that the song had never for a single minute of those forty-five years disappeared from my play list.

I have sat in the dark corner of my room, isolated with nothing but a guitar in my lap and played that song over and over.  I have stood in front of countless groups of people and launched into it without no knowledge aforethought, without any prompting except from the song itself.

It is running through my head right now.

Why do some songs stick with us?

It is a great and beautiful mystery.  One I hope I never understand.

I can’t leave this blog without sharing the song with you in its purest form.  The classic version sung by the greatest voice of the last fifty years or so, the voice of the incomparable Emmylou Harris.

, , ,

Related Posts