Tag Archives: Folk music

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.
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.

The Rock Island Line Is the Road To Ride

7 Sep

Well, here’s the story about the Rock Island Line. You see, the Rock Island Line is a good road, but you need to pay a toll unless you have certain goods, like livestock. So, if you can just trick the man at the toll gate that you have livestock, you can go on through without paying a cent.

That’s the premise of a timeless set of lyrics that have adapted, evolved and survived for over 80 years. Yes, the Rock Island Line is a mighty good road. The Rock Island Line is the road to ride. The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road so da da da da da da da da da da da gosh this lyric is fast.

If you are a fan of American blues/folk music you definitely know “Rock Island Line,” a traditional piece recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger and the blues man himself, Huddie Ledbetter (more famously known as Lead Belly). And, like is the case for most traditional songs, people often attribute song credits to the artist they first heard perform it. For the longest time, I thought Johnny Cash created the famous ditty. But I was educated. “Rock Island Line” has a history rooted in the prison gangs of Arkansas. Journey with me to find the first known versions of the song about the mighty good road.

Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar and extensive list of folk songs have made him one of the most revered early 20th century blues performers. He is also one of the first people to ever record “Rock Island Line.” There is controversy over the true foundations of this classic. What we do know is that folk/blues historians and preservers Alan and John Lomax heard the song at an Arkansas prison and recorded it. One version of the story has Alan and John Lomax hearing the song performed by convict composer Kelly Pace in 1934 at Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas. It then states that Lead Belly heard and rearranged the piece and released his own version in 1937.

But while that version is cited in Alan Lomax‘s book The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, published in 1964, an analysis of Lomax’s old recordings at the Library of Congress proves that the song was actually recorded earlier at another prison in Little Rock, Arkansas. This time, Lead Belly is actually with the Lomax’s when they hear the song being sung a cappella by a prison work gang. Lead Belly wrote down the lyrics, rearranged it and recorded this:

Do note the laid-back folk style of the recording. Keep in mind the initial narration also (because this changes). First off, Lead Belly gives an explanation of how the train stops and says that the man does not want to stop the train.  This does not appear elsewhere. Lead Belly also describes more animals than other versions. Also, notice how Lead Belly makes no mention of the train speeding up prior to the song speeding up. But we do get the trickery of pig iron and this stays consistent. For those who have listened to newer versions, the lyric is certainly a bit different. The part that does stay constant is the hook:

The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road – The Rock Island Line is the road to ride – The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road – If you want to ride, you gotta ride it like you find it – Get your ticket at the station of the Rock Island Line.

Before every chorus repetition, Lead Belly sings something religious. For example, in this version he says, Jesus died to save our sins Glory to God I’m gonna see Him again. This is important, because it changes. Let’s move now to perhaps the most famous recording of the song (no not Johnny Cash).

Lonnie Donegan pretty much started the mid-late 50’s British skiffle craze with his sped-up, slightly changed recording of Lead Belly’s version of the  “Rock Island Line.” Skiffle, a blend of blues, jazz, folk music usually played with homemade instruments like washboards and tea-chest bass, became incredibly popular in this span of time. The Beatles emerged out of John Lennon’s skiffle band The Quarrymen. Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Alexis Korner, Roger Daltrey, Robin Trower, David Gilmour all played skiffle music before forming rock bands and creating some of the greatest music ever in the 60s. Yes, skiffle had quite the influence despite its humorous name. Anyway, back to Donegan.

I have one problem with Donegan. He received considerable music publishing royalties from “Rock Island Line” by claiming the British copyright on the unregistered song which was considered to be in the public domain. I understand that this was obviously a “good” move, but he did nothing to credit Lead Belly and, come on, give some credit to the guy! But besides that, Donegan’s version did inspire most of the other versions of the song because he really sped it up and gave it the fun swing we all know.

Donegan actually tells it like a story. He reads it like it was from a book. His narration is a little different from Lead Belly’s, but it keeps the same concept. And, like in Lead Belly’s song, we are in New Orleans. Donegan lists off less livestock than Lead Belly and he spells out the story a little more. He then speeds the train up, unlike Lead Belly. Then we are all tricked again because he has pig iron. You know, I have to stop trusting people who say they have livestock when they clearly have pig iron.

In the recording you can hear the washboard and tea-chest bass and this just adds to the song’s awesomeness. Also, quite importantly, the hint of religion that Lead Belly put in the song was shifted slightly by Donegan. He does mention the Lord seeing him again, but instead of two other pre-chorus religious statements, Donegan has one and he says, “ABC WXYZ, The cats on the cover but he don’t see me.”

All the religion is out of the song when Cash gets his hand on it.

Johnny Cash recorded “Rock Island Line” in 1957, probably because the Rock Island Line is really a mighty good road. Cash tells a similar story. And, guess what, he fooled you. He had pig iron. All pig iron. Damn, three times!

Here’s where things change. After the usual chorus Cash sings two pre-chorus’ that are completely different than the other versions. They are:

Looked cloudy in the west and it looked like rain
Round the curve came a passenger train
North bound train on the southbound track
he’s alright a leavin’ but he won’t be back

Oh I may be right and I may be wrong
But you gonna miss me when I’m gone
Well the engineer said before he died
There were two more drinks that he’d like to try
The conductor said what could they be
A hot cup of coffee and a cold glass of tea

Pretty cool touch if you ask me. So, that’s the story of the Rock Island Line. And to think, if the toll gate man wasn’t so gullible, the song would have never existed…and our sly conductor would be out some money for the toll.

The Best Songs of 2010: #1: “King of Spain” by The Tallest Man On Earth

30 Dec

We have gone through many songs spanning several genres on our Top 11 of 2010 list. But, today we reach the end with the #1 song that is good ol’ fashioned folk music. I have gone through some pretty complex songs in the countdown. I’m sure you are thinking how did a folk song reach the #1 spot for the year. Well, this specific song is not only a plain folk piece. It is a work of absolute perfection from a 27-year-old Swedish artist named Kristian Matsson, better known as The Tallest Man on Earth.  The song combines a genius guitar riff, excellent lyrics and a voice that calls back to a young Bob Dylan (but it’s better). “King of Spain” is the most inerrant song of the year. It is both enjoyable and an absolute masterpiece. This is why it is #1.

Artist: The Tallest Man on Earth

Song: “King of Spain”

I’m not sure where to start. One side is telling me to simply post the song and publish the post. There is no need to defend a song that defends itself in its gritty beauty. However, I do feel that there may be some doubters out there and I do enjoy writing about music.

The Tallest Man on Earth is Kristian Matsson. Well, not really. Ah, you know what I mean. Like I mentioned above, he is a 27-year-old Swedish singer/songwriter. He is a multi-instrumentalist with a voice straight out of the Swedish mountains, boisterous and rural. He plays a bare style of folk, concentrating on the essential three elements to a true folk piece, instrument, voice and lyric. Not everyone can pull this off, of course. Why do you believe so many have to add synthesizers, extra instrumentalists and harmonizers. I am not claiming that those who do this provide us with bad music. On the contrary, most of it explores beautiful sounds that Matsson cannot provide us with. But, I would certainly argue that those who do play this folk-blend style of music cannot support an entire song solo. Matsson can. He is an old-fashioned folk singer who has reached a level of notoriety and success playing a distinct solo style of music.

This is why constant comparisons to Bob Dylan follow him. And while Dylan will forever maintain the title of most accomplished and rich lyricist, Matsson’s two albums prove that he has a strong inclination for guitar style and vocals, enough that he may give Dylan a run for his money. A comparison between the two is quite bold at this time for Matsson simply does not have enough of a body of work. But, I can comfortably say that Matsson’s keen style of folk is some of the best I have ever heard. Yes, it is that good.

The first 27 seconds of pure acoustic guitar is beyond good. I have a tough time describing it. It causes an unconscious smile and you cannot help shaking your head. It is so simple, yet so complex. The song employs a capo over an already changed key. Unusual chord progressions follow and after a quick harmonic a lower chugging progression lays down an awesome rhythm that the song will follow. There is a purity to this progression, an excellence that makes you want to put it on repeat for hours. And then Matsson’s voice comes in.

A Bob Dylan comparison immediately does pop in your head, but the voices are distinctly different. Matsson has significantly more range. His voice follows the chug of the chords and meets the chorus with full force. It seems nasally but is not. Matsson puts this odd guttural inflection into his words and then utters them with such power you are actually blown away. And this is necessary for the lyric which displays passion. It is a unconventional love song. It seems like the song focuses on a lover who thinks he can be anything now that he has been provided with mutual feelings from another. He writes,

“Why are you stabbing my illusion?
Just cause I stole some eagle’s wings
Because you named me as your lover
Well, I thought I could be anything.”

It is described well in this final verse. His eagle wings allow him to soar (a common feeling when you are deeply in love). He feels like he can be anything, like the “King of Spain.”

Before the song ends, Matsson holds out the word “the” in this vocal climax that is shattering. It is also a perfect way for me to end this countdown. There is an animation in Matsson’s croon that is warm, inviting and aggressive. This is a true strength in his music. He is a folk musician who can provide the erupting emotion that Spector’s “wall of sound” does, but with only himself and a guitar. He is a one-man-band who is significantly stronger then mostly all of his five or more band counterparts. That is an impressive feat. Heck, he might actually be the “King of Spain”

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