It Takes a Worried Man To Sing a Worried Song – The History of “Worried Man Blues”

21 Sep
He’s Worried Now, But He Won’t Be Worried Long

When Rod Stewart received his first guitar from his father, he first developed hard-earned calluses from playing “Worried Man Blues.” The folk classic sparked the musician inside of Stewart. Now, obviously, Stewart did not stake his claim as a guitarist, but the song helped engender Stewart’s burgeoning musical creativity. I mention this little story because “Worried Man Blues” is another example of a traditional folk song lost to time; a deracinated ditty, a matchless melody. Okay, you get the point. “Worried Man Blues” was first propagated by the Carter Family, but its roots are forever lost in the vast annals of time. Please excuse my corny hyperbolizing. Let’s explore the evolution of this folk smash.

 
 
Like I said in the previous paragraph, “Worried Man Blues,” came from somewhere, but past the first recording of the song in 1930, we do not know much about its history. What one can delineate from written record is this: A.P. Carter, the tall, lanky male member of the original Carter Family was known for traveling throughout the country and collecting old songs, especially in the Appalachian region. In 1928, he met Lesley Riddle, a one-legged blues musician, and Riddle joined Carter on his country-wide blues excursions. Carter would write down the lyrics of songs they picked up, and Riddle would memorize the melodies. It is possible that “Worried Man Blues” came from these trips. But it is also possible that Riddle had nothing to do with the old-time piece. Carter did pick up the song and in 1930 he recorded “Worried Man Blues” with his wife Sara Carter and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter. Here is the recording.
 
 
 
If you have heard the piece before performed by more recent artists you might notice that there is a distinct different. In more modern versions, the opening line of every verse is repeated three times. But in the Carter Family version (and in the later mentioned Guthrie version – which we will get to), the first line of each verse is only repeated twice. The melody is also slower than some other versions. Each version does practically have the same melody and chord structure (G with variation, C, D – easy to play on the guitar or banjo, you just need to figure out the picking pattern) The lyric is where the differences really shine. I am going to paste the full Carter Family version so we can have a solid FIRST lyric for reference.
 
LYRIC By CARTER FAMILY
 
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long
 
I went across the river and I lay down to sleep
I went across the river and I lay down to sleep
When I woke up, put the shackles on my feet
 
29 links of chain around my leg
29 links of chain around my leg
And on each link an initial of my name
 
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long 
 
I asked the judge, what might be my fine
 I asked the judge, what might be my fine
21 years on the R.C. Mountain Line
 
The train arrived, 16 coaches long
The train arrived, 16 coaches long
The girl I love is on that train and gone
 
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long
 
If anyone should ask you who composed this song
If anyone should ask you who composed this song
Tell ’em ’twas I, and I sing it all day long
 
I love this last little passage, which, by the way, is completely original to the Carter Family version, and it doesn’t appear again often (if ever) in more modern versions. It sort-of has a mark of irony, since we are now asking 81 years later who first sang this song. I guess it was I, and I sing it all day long. Old folk/blues pieces with unknown origins are kept alive by popular recordings and kids, who, like Rod Stewart, pick up a guitar, pluck the simple chords, and sing about being a worried man singing about being worried all day long. This timelessness is genuine. After the Carter Family recorded the song in 1930, Woody Guthrie picked up the classic and took it on in 1940. Here is a version from volume two of the Asch Recordings (1944).
 
 
 
Guthrie’s version immediately just sounds different, especially with the slightly out-of-tune, but stylish acoustic guitar. The all-male vocal backing obviously differs from the Carter Family. The main difference, though, is that Guthrie, unlike all other versions, does not begin with the chorus. He dives right into going across the river and lying down to sleep. Guthrie maintains the two repetition of the Carter’s, but, starting with verse two, stuff begins changing.
 
In the game of lyrical telephone (like I mentioned in previous blues evolution posts), some of the first things to go are numbers and places. In this case, Guthrie mentions 21 links of chain, as opposed to the Carter’s 29 links of chain. Then, on the next verse, the protagonist of the song is sentenced to 21 years on the Rocky Mountain line. In the Carter’s version, the protagonist is spending 21 years on the R.C. Mountain line. What is the R.C. Mountain line? Railroad Company? Perhaps. It may be referring to the Rocky Mountain line, but, supposing this song was first learned from Appalachian blues artists, it is most likely referring to a rail line in the east.
 
Guthrie’s train is 21 coaches long (he has an obsession with the number 21) and the Carter’s train is 16 coaches long. Also, Guthie ends the song with a completely independent verse that he seemingly made up. It goes:
 
Twenty-one years
Pay my awful crime
Twenty-one years
Pay my awful crime
Twenty-one years
And I still got ninety-nine
 
It is a neat, different version of the song, perhaps inspired by other versions he heard outside of the Carter’s 1930 recording, or, Guthrie may have just taken creative liberty. A group that took complete creative liberty was the Kingston Trio, who recorded a completely different version of the song – only keeping the chorus – in 1958. It is sped up (in typical Kingston Trio fashion) and repeats the first line of the chorus three times. Hmm…interesting. (The first song is “Worried Man Blues”)
 
 
 
This is actually the first version of the song I became familiar with. It’s just completely different, but still enjoyable.
 
I would like to leave you all with one more version of the song. This one performed by folk perfectionist Pete Seeger and the great Johnny Cash (1970). Pete Seeger is awesome. There is just no way around that statement. He is a classics man and he performs the songs with such enjoyable passion. I also love when Cash performs old folk songs (see the last blues evolution I did). This version also repeats the lines three times. It does, though, follow the classic version pretty well. It also features a Seeger monologue and, hopefully without being too sententious, I want to post his statement for I think it is rather apt for this post.
 
 “These old songs are never going to die out. This song is the whole human race. I crossed the river, laid down to sleep, and woke up with shackles on my feet. Across the river we thought we solved all of our problems. You have that revolution. You get that home. You get that job. You think you solved all of your problems. You crossed that river and found you got shackles on your feet. And who’se the judge. Is it some old guy, 74 years old, with black robes. It might be the young judging the old or the old judging the rich. But no matter what mistakes we ever made, there is still a last verse that holds out some hope.”   – Pete Seeger
 
I’m worried now…but, I won’t be worried long.
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10 Responses to “It Takes a Worried Man To Sing a Worried Song – The History of “Worried Man Blues””

  1. John Phillips September 21, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    Nice read, lots of interesting stuff. Anyone that can squeeze Rod Stewart, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Carters and related them all in the same post was doing some thinking. Really enjoyed.

    • Matt Coleman September 21, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

      Thanks for reading and commenting John. I love looking at the histories of these traditional folk/blues tunes. Not only were they incredibly inspirational to many musicians, but also so many talented artists covered these songs and put their own spin on them. It is fascinating to dig deep and it’s a pleasure to write about it!

  2. andy kerrison August 28, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

    well folks i was,ent born carter family fan but i will sure die one.andy kay hotmail.co.uk

  3. Melinda December 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    Great article! I’ve noticed that along the way, the various Carter renditions went from repeating the first line twice to repeating it three times. Any idea when/why? Also the strong similarity in at least the melody to ‘Laid around and stayed around this ole town too long’ is interesting…
    Thanks!

  4. Matthew Coleman December 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Melinda. That’s an interesting point. You are absolutely right. The Carter’s did repeat the first line three times in later recordings. It’s curious why they did it. I’m afraid I do not have an answer. Perhaps it was just to diversify. Maybe it was to emphasize the sing-along quality of the piece?

    Excellent point with “Done Laid Around.” The chord progression is almost identical. The Weaver’s apparently dug up this song from a 19th Century song. Perhaps the two song intermingled at some point?

  5. C Gray June 21, 2013 at 8:12 am #

    Love this song! been listening to Chris Barber and Lonnie Donnigan jamming this song on the Van Morrison Skiffle session disc. Cant wait to grab my martin and pick along with it.
    great reading… thanks for the article.

  6. dennislee January 28, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    Interesting points. As for sounding like ‘Laid Around’, Pete Seeger once quoted his father, the musicologist Charles, as saying “Plagiarism is basic to all culture.”

  7. Randall Souviney January 21, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    I recently recorded Long Journey Home with 8 verses and curiously, the last four verses are actually from Woody Guthrie’s rendition of Worried Man Blues…and they fit just fine. Does anyone know if Long Journey Home and Worried Man Blues are in the public domain? This website is a wonderful music history resource. Thanx for all your contributions to keeping the history of these old tunes alive.

  8. Valérie March 6, 2016 at 9:28 am #

    Hello, I’m looking for another version of this song. My father recorded this particular version of this song on a casette when he was young. I’ve never been able to find the song again since I lost the casette. I really loved that version and I think I lost it forever. It sounds very much like Woody Guthries version, but it is song faster and the guitar is also stronger and faster played. It sounds as if it’s from around woody’s time period. Can somebody help me please? Greetings, Valérie

  9. Jean Vancances August 1, 2016 at 5:47 am #

    Interesting articles. The song really doesn’t make sense but then A P Carter’s songs often don’t, in part anyway. Take the first verse of Wildwood Flower, for example: what on earth is the hair being tied with? I think he perhaps APC misheard words or mistranscribed them.
    Worried Man sounds like it’s about someone crossing a river (= state line or county line) and then being arrested, for vagrancy perhaps. But why won’t he be worried long? I think a few ‘floating verses’ have found their way in here and there.
    First recording I heard was from the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group with Dick Bishop doing the Woody Guthrie part and LD the Cisco Houston part. Well, sort of; I still enjoy it though.
    I have a lovely recording of ‘Laid Around and Stayed Around’ by Cisco ; there it says that the song was written by folk singer and collector Paul Clayton.

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