Tracks

The Highwaymen - I'm On My Way

The Highwaymen

I'm On My Way

HMV

Release Date: April 10th, 1962

Words by: Peter Berris
October 6th, 1962

To a modern audience, 'I'm on my way,' as performed by the Highwaymen, is sure to bring a contentious musical debate to the fore: what is authenticity in folk music? The Highwaymen were marketed as a folk act, they were most likely received as a folk act, and 'I'm on my way' meets much of the folk song criteria. And yet… something is missing.

In the book Folk Songs of North America, musicologist Alan Lomax provides a discography of his favorite folk recordings. In doing so he delineates between authentic folk music and popular renditions of folk music. He refers to performers of the latter category as "folkniks," and includes examples by such musicians on his list only "where these singers have learned to perform with some folk feeling or where they present songs otherwise unavailable on record" (Lomax "Folk Songs" 1960, 608).

Though Lomax's book predates the release of this Highwaymen recording, it seems unlikely that their rendition of 'I'm on my way' would have made the list (especially since other versions of the songs were available).

It is not a matter of talent—it is a matter of style.

In the hands of singers like Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, and Mavis Staples, 'I'm on my way' is a powerful anthem. In the hands of The Highwaymen, the song comes across as a bit corny. The "folk feeling" that Lomax refers to is absent. Attempts by the Highwaymen to compensate for these flaws with a gospel inspired call-and-response song structure only compound the problem. Though this concept works well with the nature of the song, their approach is rigid and mechanical. It is pleasant enough to listen to, but the feeling of the song seems almost estranged from its own folk roots. It is an exceedingly academic approach to a folk song (the band actually formed at Wesleyan University where its members were students). Give an acoustic guitar to a college A-capella group, have them play and sing a folk song, and the results would likely be something like this recording.

As a result, today's listeners may find the recording dated. However, the song is part of a larger musical context. Just as Elvis (and others) helped to introduce traditionally black musical forms like R&B and blues in the 1950s to white audiences, the folk groups of the late 50s and early 60s helped to re-popularize other musical forms as well. A listener who started off casually listening to the Kingston Trio or the Highwaymen might have eventually found themselves avidly collecting recordings of anyone from Mississippi John Hurt to the Stanley Brothers. It is sort of a trickle-down history, where the commercial success of groups like the Highwaymen likely increased the popularity of the folk music performers off of which they had based their own musical careers.

Although the recording of 'I'm on my way' by the Highwaymen may not be the "real deal"... the success of groups like this have helped to make it is easy to find the versions that are.

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