How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (4 of 4): Traditional

Merle Travis - Folk Songs of the Hills

This is post 4 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

One song on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, “I Am a Pilgrim,” has a songwriting credit that attributes it to “traditional.” My understanding at the time I first heard the song was that traditional meant it was so old that no one remembers who wrote it.Later I learned that “traditional” is a term, like “folk music” and “old-time music,” that has been defined in different ways. Some people spend a lot of time and brainpower discussing, dissecting, and debating the minutiae of these definitions. Fortunately for you, I am not one of those people.

For our purposes, let’s just expand my original definition a little. A song can be traditional even if the name of the songwriter(s) is known. Traditional songs are those that are performed by custom in a community and have been passed down orally, or aurally, over a period of at least a few generations. Close enough.

“I Am a Pilgrim” is of unknown origin. It seems to be related to many different 19th century song texts. It was possibly an African American spiritual from the time of slavery. Trying to determine the origins of a traditional song of unknown origin is part of the fun and frustration of folk music.

The earliest recording that I have been able to identify is by the Heavenly Gospel Singers, recorded on February 13, 1936 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The song has been recorded by many others, including Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, Alabama, Willie Nelson, and Doc Watson. Some people mistakenly attribute its authorship to Merle Travis, possibly because his version provided the blueprint for some of the versions to follow. In the spoken introduction for his 1946 recording of “I Am a Pilgrim” (below), Merle indicates that he learned the song in his youth at the camp meetings and Brush Arbor meetings (religious gatherings) presumably in or near his hometown of Rosewood, Kentucky (Muhlenberg County). Depending on how old Merle, who was born in 1917, was when he “first got big enough to start running around by myself at night,” this supports the idea that the song was in circulation prior to the recording by the Heavenly Gospel Singers.

Here is the 1968 recording from the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album started me traveling down a most unexpected road that led to country and folk musicians the Louvin Brothers, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Merle Travis. This was only the beginning of my journey into American heritage music. Little did I know how far the road would go, how many forks it would have, and how long I would travel it. It’s been more than two decades and I’m still fascinated by what I find around every bend.

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Author: Matthew Sabatella

With vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica, and mountain dulcimer, Matthew Sabatella brings to life music that is woven into the fabric of the United States. For nearly two decades, he has followed the threads of traditional folk song, revealing a tapestry of music created by American colonists, pioneers, sailors, lumberjacks, immigrants, '49ers, farmers, mountaineers, slaves, soldiers, cowboys, railroaders, factory workers, and activists. Performing both with the 5-piece Rambling String Band and as a solo artist, Sabatella tells his own story of discovery while digging deep into his repertoire of folk, old-time country, fiddle tunes, Appalachian music, ragtime, blues, spirituals, railroad and cowboy songs, work songs, sea shanties, Old World ballads, bluegrass, and more. Audiences engage with the strength and beauty that have emerged from the often troubled history of the United States. He has recorded and released three albums with the Rambling String Band in their Ballad of America series. This is American heritage music. This is your birthright. Own it. Visit for more.

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