This very comprehensive writeup on Sister Wynona Carr included a line that intrigued me. Discussing a recording session in Philadelphia in 1949 (or thereabouts), Tony Cummings writes:
The session showed her ability to transform blues into gospel. “St James Infirmary” became “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler” while “I Heard The News (Jesus Is Coming Again)” was a Christian take on Roy Brown’s and Wynonie Harris’ 1948 smash “Good Rockin’ Tonight”.
Well, I had to hear that “SJI” variation. And luckily it wasn’t hard to do so: “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler” was available as an MP3 on Amazon. Details momentarily, but the quick assessment is: Pretty great stuff!
I had never heard of Wynona Carr before. According to Cummings’ writeup, she was born in 1924, in Cleveland, where her earliest public music performances were in area Baptist churches and the like. In her early 20s she formed a gospel group and toured regionally. Soon she got on the radar of a “Jewish atheist” record man named Art Rupe, who had a gospel R&B label called Specialty. One of his groups was The Pilgrim Travelers, whose star apparently is the person who heard Carr and brought her to Rupe’s attention. Rupe is the one who dubbed her “Sister” Wynona Carr, in an intentional echo of Sister Rosetta Tharp. (Carr disliked this, but it stuck.)
“I’m a Pilgrim Traveler” is from her second recording session, and inserts a radically different set of lyrics over an “SJI”-like melody. This isn’t the only time that’s happened (Josh White’s “Free And Equal Blues” comes to mind, among others), and is in-line with the song’s folk/traditional history as a thing that’s been rewritten, re-imagined, pasted together from disparate parts, etc. (See I Went Down To St. James Infirmary for the definitive take on the formulation of the song we know and the complexities of the folk tradition bumping up against modern copyright law.) That said, in this case the lyrics really don’t riff on, or reference, “SJI” at all, and I guess I can’t immediately think of another example where that’s the case. Maybe you can?
I’ll get to those lyrics in a second, but what grabbed me about “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler” is really its sound. Carr has an extremely charismatic voice, and the arrangement is spare and somewhat dark, particularly compared to some of the more jumpy R&B sound of some of her other early recordings. Both she and the musicians on the session — the guitarist is wonderful — seem quite comfortable fast or slow, swingy or somber. “I’m a Pilgrim Traveler,” which starts with some very spooky “ooh-ooh”-ing from Carr, actually has the sonic tone of some of the more melodramatic readings of “SJI,” the ones that underscore the tragedy of its story. But the lyric is basically a declaration faith, albeit a somewhat weary one. Carr announces that she’s a pilgrim traveler “on the long road home,” who leans on the Lord to help her live in “a heavenly way,” avoiding the “rut of sin” on life’s highway, so she can “make it in” (to heaven, one assumes). Full lyrics after the jump.
I suppose with some imagination, one could consider this a kind of alternate reading of a response to tragedy, maybe almost an answer song, if you stretch it. In “SJI” the narrator walks away from his lover’s corpse and quickly toggles to self-affirmation: She’ll never find another like me; and I’ll look great at my funeral; and so on. In “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler,” one might say we have a narrator who (while not mentioning a specific tragedy) seems less interested in responding to struggle or sorrow by way of braggadocio, than in turning herself over to faith and humility. (“I know I’ll make it if He holds my hand.”)
As Cummings notes, Carr also does a version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” with totally different, gospel lyrics. And several of her originals are absolutely fascinating exercises in grafting a Christian worldview onto various manifestations of pop culture, often for no obvious reason: “15 Rounds For Jesus” and “The Ball Game” do this with sports, and the astonishingly good “Dragnet For Jesus” references the detective series. For the rest of Carr’s story, check out Cummings’ piece. Great stuff.
“I’m A Pilgrim Traveler”
I am a pilgrim traveler
On the long road home.
I need the Lord to guide me
As on this way I roam.
He guided my mother before me,
He kept her all the way.
I know He’ll do the same for me
If I keep traveling on the heavenly way.
Yes He guides me on the highway
Keeps me from the rut of sin
While traveling on this journey
I’m going to live so I can make it in.
Yes He promised to give me protection
If I live by his direction.
I’ll do the best I can,
I know I’ll make it if He holds my hand.
I know I’ll make it if He holds my hand.