Worried Man Blues: The Carter Family; The Kingston Trio; Devo

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Worried Man Blues. This is a great ‘roots’ folk song, originally recorded in the 1940s. We will start with the original song by the Carter Family. We will then review covers by the Kingston Trio, and by Devo.

The Carter Family and Worried Man Blues:

The Carter Family became America’s First Family of country music. The first step occurred when the head of the family, Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter, joined with his wife Sara Carter and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter to form a family trio.

Below is a photo of the Carter Family. From L: Maybelle Carter; A.P. Carter; Sara Carter.

Embed from Getty Images

The family initially became known when A.P. traveled around the area, collecting traditional folk and gospel songs known in that region. The music featured tight harmonies and shape note singing. In addition, A.P. composed several songs of his own.

The family then became famous throughout the Appalachian region, and subsequently gained national attention for their music.

Here is the beginning of the documentary The Carter Family: Will The Circle Be Unbroken. It was narrated by Robert Duvall, produced for Nashville Public Television and later broadcast nation-wide on the PBS program American Experience.

This video shows the area of extreme southwest Virginia where the Carter family lived. It is right at the point where Virginia adjoins Kentucky and Tennessee, also very near to North Carolina and even West Virginia.

The Carter clan had farmed in the Poor Valley area, in the shadow of Clinch Mountain, since Revolutionary War times.

A significant turning point occurred in August, 1927. A.P. Carter, along with Sara and Maybelle, travelled to Bristol, Tennessee to audition with producer Ralph Peer.

It’s worth discussing the remarkable career of Ralph Peer. He was a great innovator in the music industry. Peer was one of the first people to utilize “field recording” of music,
when in June 1923 he took remote recording equipment south to Atlanta, Georgia to record regional music outside the recording studio in such places as hotel rooms, ballrooms, or empty warehouses.

In 1920, Peer produced the first blues recording aimed at the African-American market, Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues. To nearly everyone’s surprise, there turned out to be a significant market for these records.

Then in 1924, Peer oversaw the first commercial recording session in New Orleans, where he produced songs by blues, jazz and gospel groups.

Now, in 1927 Peer was prepared to do the same for hillbilly music. In fact, at what are now called the “Bristol sessions,” Peer recorded both the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers, two of the most important and influential country music groups.

Peer also sold his company, Victor Records, on a scheme for royalties. Instead of a raise, Peer requested that he be paid one penny for every side of a record that he produced. Peer would keep half of this, and share the other half with the composer.

Such a royalty system was completely new in the music business. But it made a fortune for Ralph Peer, and it also provided a powerful incentive for regional music groups.

After being recorded by Ralph Peer, the Carter Family became nationally  famous for their brand of country music. In their trio, A.P. generally sang backup, while his wife Sara on autoharp and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter on guitar often sang the lead parts.

Maybelle’s guitar style ushered in a major change in country music. She single-handedly invented the dominant style of bluegrass guitar picking. Maybelle used her thumb (with a thumbpick) and two fingers
to play melody lines (on the low strings of the guitar) while still maintaining rhythm using her fingers, brushing across the higher strings.

This blazed a trail in country music, where beforehand the guitar was used only infrequently as a solo instrument. An entire guitar-picking industry was inspired by Mother Maybelle’s style.

Here is a great example of Maybelle’s guitar technique. This is from a Carter Family performance of the song Wildwood Flower on Grand Ole Opry. Maybelle is second from left and shows off her trademark picking style to great advantage.

The Carter Family’s music tapped into a totally new market, made up primarily of rural white Southerners. The songs unearthed by A.P. Carter had been passed around by generations of folk living in isolated valleys in this region.

The next great contribution from the Carter Family came from A.P.’s drive to collect and publish songs from people all through Appalachia. Indeed, between 1927 and 1941 the Carter Family recorded an astonishing 300 songs. This included gospel and traditional folk tunes, in addition to A.P.’s original songs.

Inspired by the inducement of the half-penny royalty, A.P. Carter copyrighted all these songs in his own name. As a result, the Carter Family “owned” the rights to an entire catalog of traditional music.

The Carter Family quickly established themselves as the premier source of country music. They were responsible for such iconic bluegrass songs as Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Wildwood Flower and Wabash Cannonball.

The song Worried Man Blues was taken from a traditional folk song, and was recorded by the Carter Family in 1930. The song consists of three-line verses with the lyrics of the second line repeating the first, but in a different chord.

For some unknown reason, the singer is experiencing a series of tribulations. Upon waking up, he has shackles on his feet. When he inquires of the judge, he is told that his sentence is “21 years on the R.C. Mountain Line.”

[CHORUS] 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

[CHORUS]

So here is the audio from the Carter Family recording of Worried Man Blues.

Worried Man Blues quickly became a staple of country music. Versions of the song were recorded by Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger. Seeger also included the song in his instructional Folksingers Guitar Guide record.

The British skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan recorded a version of Worried Man Blues that was a big hit in the U.K. In addition, a number of blues singers also covered the song, although in nearly all cases they made significant changes to the lyrics. Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Van Morrison all recorded versions of Worried Man Blues.

In the late 30s the Carter family moved to Texas and began broadcasting radio shows there. And in 1942 they moved their operation to Charlotte, NC where they produced a twice-daily show.

Alas, A.P. Carter had spent so much time traveling around the South collecting folk tunes that in his absence, his wife Sara had an affair with his cousin. The couple separated in 1932 and divorced in 1939, but they continued to perform together for several progressively more uncomfortable years.

Finally, the group split up in 1944. At that time, A.P. left the music business and opened a general store in Hiltons, VA, while Sara remarried and moved to California.

But Mother Maybelle continued on. She assembled her daughters and the children of A.P. and Sara, and traveled the country as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.

Maybelle’s daughter June Carter subsequently married Johnny Cash, and descendants of the Carter family such as grand-daughters Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash are still performing country music today.

To give you some idea of the influence of the Carter Family’s hillbilly music, around 1960 young folksinger Bob Dylan took one of their songs Wayworn Traveller. Dylan rewrote the lyrics and named it Paths of Victory. Dylan subsequently added new lyrics, changed the song to 3/4 time, and — voila! — he had written The Times Are A-Changin’.

The Kingston Trio and A Worried Man:

We encountered the Kingston Trio in our earlier blog post on the song “Let’s Get Together.” So here we will briefly review their career.

The Kingston Trio was formed when junior high school buddies Dave Guard and Bob Shane from Honolulu, Hawaii teamed up with San Diego native Nick Reynolds. The trio were ‘discovered’ by publicist Frank Werber, who began to coach and train the boys.

The budding young musicians assembled a playlist of folk songs and Caribbean melodies, mixed in with pop and foreign tunes. Werber was a demanding taskmaster. The group polished their act until they mastered every detail. Even the apparently spontaneous banter between the musicians was meticulously rehearsed.

Below is a photo of the Kingston Trio. From L: Bob Shane; Dave Guard; Nick Reynolds.  The boys are dressed in their trademark striped shirts with three-quarter-length short sleeves.

Embed from Getty Images

The Kingston Trio began appearing in California’s Bay Area folk clubs, where they established an enthusiastic following. They followed that up with successful appearances at the top clubs in New York, Chicago and Boston.

The group’s break-out hit was the folk song Tom Dooley. The success of that song propelled the Kingston Trio to phenomenal commercial success. That song won them a Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Performance, as at the time no Grammy existed for folk song.

That oversight was corrected the following year when the group’s second album won the first Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.

While most folk-singers toiled away in small clubs in major cities, selling handfuls of albums on struggling boutique record labels, the Kingston Trio virtually invented the college touring circuit, where their eager young fans sold out entire auditoriums.

Furthermore, the group focused on album sales rather than single records. Their albums sold millions of copies, and remained on the Billboard charts for months and even years. At one time, four Kingston Trio albums were simultaneously near the top of the Billboard charts, a record that has never been equaled.

The Kingston Trio rode the crest of a folk music craze. However, critical assessments of the Kingston Trio were not nearly as positive as their commercial success.
Irwin Silber [editor of Sing Out] referred to “the sallow slickness of the Kingston Trio.” …Ron Radosh referred to the Trio as “prostitutes of the art who gain their status as folk artists because they use guitars and banjos.”

More recent reviews of the Kingston Trio tend to be more forgiving. They emphasize the great exposure that the group provided for folk music, and the fact that in addition to folk songs, the Kingston Trio recorded tunes from a wide range of genres.

I was a big fan of the Kingston Trio as a teenager. They came along when I was in high school and had recently become enamored of folk music. Inspired by Pete Seeger’s clawhammer banjo technique, I bought a cheap banjo and labored mightily to master the instrument.

But then the Kingston Trio came along, and I was able to sing along with Nick, Bob and Dave through their series of folk albums. So
here is the Kingston Trio in their performance of A Worried Man.

This is the original lineup of the Kingston Trio, featuring Bob Shane and Dave Guard on banjo and Nick Reynolds on guitar.  I doubt very much that this is an actual live performance, as it appears more like a music video.

Although the original Carter Family version of Worried Man Blues was rather somber, including references to waking up “with shackles on my feet,” and “29 links of chain around my leg,” the Kingston Trio version was much more upbeat.

For example, one verse of the Kingston Trio song contains the lyrics

Got myself a Cadillac thirty dollars down
Got myself a brand new house five miles out of town
Got myself a gal named Sue, treats me really fine
Yes, she’s my baby and I love her all the time

Whereas the Carter Family version is a classic twelve-bar blues song, the Kingston Trio drop the word “Blues” from the title, producing a song that is more appropriate to a feel-good hootenanny.

Although Nick, Bob and Dave had reached the pinnacle of success, breaking new ground and making pots of money, dissension was lurking beneath the surface.

Nick and Bob were irked that the media referred to Guard as the ‘acknowledged leader’ of the group. They were also irritated that Guard assigned songwriting credits to himself for many of the group’s tunes. Actually, one might ask why anyone in the group should receive ‘songwriting credits’ for traditional folk songs such as Tom Dooley.

The group members also had very different ideas about the band’s musical directions. Guard wanted to focus on traditional folk songs, while Shane and Reynolds were content with the group’s mix of folk, pop and Caribbean material.

This all boiled over in April, 1961 when Shane and Reynolds, together with their manager Frank Werber, forced Guard out of the group. Guard was replaced by John Stewart, a guitar and banjo player and singer who was a member of the Cumberland Trio.

For a while, the re-shuffled Kingston Trio appeared to thrive. Their albums continued to be best-sellers, their tours still sold out, and they had a number of hit singles. However, around 1964 the group’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. First off, a generation of openly political (and genuinely talented!) folksingers appeared such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul & Mary.

Secondly, 1964 brought the British Invasion, spearheaded by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Few American pop groups were able to withstand the onslaught of the British Invasion. In particular, the folk music craze crashed, and the Kingston Trio’s album sales sagged.

Finally, the Kingston Trio members were exhausted after a decade on the road. Nick Reynolds wanted to take a break from touring, and John Stewart was ready to try a solo career as a singer-songwriter. The group broke up in 1967, and went their separate ways.

Bob Shane went back on the road with the New Kingston Trio, while Nick largely retired from the music business. John Stewart continued to have a fair amount of success, particularly as a songwriter – he wrote Daydream Believer for The Monkees and Runaway Train for Roseanne Cash.

Dave Guard died in 1991, and Nick Reynolds and John Stewart died in 2008, so Bob Shane is currently the only surviving member of the original version of the Kingston Trio.

Devo and Worried Man:

Devo was a new-wave band comprised of members from the Kent, Ohio area. We discussed Devo in our earlier blog post on their cover of the Stones’ song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. So here we will briefly review Devo and their career.

The ‘classic’ lineup of Devo consisted of two sets of brothers – Bob and Mark Mothersbaugh on guitar and keyboards, respectively; Gerald and Bob Casale on bass and guitar; and drummer Alan Myers.

The name Devo was taken from a bogus philosophy called “De-evolution”. The idea was that instead of evolving upwards, mankind was actually regressing, “as evidenced by the disfunction and herd mentality in American society.” This satirical notion was developed by Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis when they were art students at Kent State University in the late 60s.

Below is a photo of Devo in concert.

Embed from Getty Images

In the photo above, Devo are wearing their trademark ‘energy domes,’ red hats that look like ziggurats or inverted flowerpots.

Here is a music video of Devo performing their version of It Takes A Worried Man.

This appeared in the 1982 movie Human Highway, which was co-produced by Neil Young (using the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) and Dean Stockwell. Below left is the poster for that film.

Poster for the 1982 movie Human Highway.

Poster for the 1982 movie Human Highway.

The movie was a nuclear-holocaust black comedy. During part of the film, the band Devo appears as nuclear garbagemen. They sing their version of Worried Man while dancing around and wheeling barrels of nuclear waste.

As was the case with the Kingston Trio, Devo also take creative liberties with the lyrics of the song. One of their verses goes as follows:

everything is f***** up, it’s all coming down
it takes a worried man to sing a worried song

Apparently the demented (and highly radioactive) garbagemen are preparing to dump the nuclear waste into the nearby community of Linear Valley. The garbagemen are accompanied by the character Booji Boy, played by Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh.

Not surprisingly, Human Highway was considerably too bizarre for audiences at that time. The movie contained a dream sequence that was described by the site Rotten Tomatoes as “The Wizard of Oz on acid.”

Neil Young reportedly sunk a ton of money into the movie, which was never released for general audiences at the time. However, once the film was released on VHS in 1996, it was looked on more favorably.
It was suggested by TV Guide that the film would have done well on the midnight circuit that existed at the time of its initial release.

Devo had one big commercial hit, the 1980 song Whip It. That tune made it to #14 on the Billboard pop charts. The combination of the song Whip It and the accompanying music video made Devo cult sensations.

I was never much of a Devo fan, but I had to admit they were memorable. Many new wave and electronic artists that followed Devo were strongly influenced by their music. For example, in the beginning of their career, both David Bowie and Iggy Pop were instrumental in helping Devo secure a record contract.

Devo was also noted for their highly theatrical performances. Again, several artists who followed them also incorporated ‘performance art’ into their live appearances.

One final trail blazed by Devo was their creative use of music videos. They were especially influential in their use of the short-lived Laser disc format. In particular, their music video for Whip It received tremendous airplay on MTV.

It would be hard to imagine three more different versions of Worried Man Blues. The song originated in 1930 as an Appalachian blues lament from the legendary Carter Family.

In 1959, it was re-recorded by the Kingston Trio with new lyrics. In this version, the song becomes an up-tempo, feel-good sing-along tune.

Finally, in 1982 the group Devo turns the song into a bizarre satire. The tune is sung while a group of garbagemen cavort around a nuclear plant in an apocalyptic black comedy.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Worried Man Blues
Wikipedia, The Carter Family
Wikipedia, Ralph Peer
Wikipedia, The Kingston Trio
Wikipedia, Devo
Wikipedia, Human Highway

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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2 Responses to Worried Man Blues: The Carter Family; The Kingston Trio; Devo

  1. This is such a wild and weird post — I love the Devo clip, but it just is a total blast from the past to see the Kingston Trio, since that was my first and most memorable introduction to music –from your albums, Tim! I think I know every single lyric of every song … what a great blast from the past !
    (and p.s. — what is wrong with Neil Young that he keeps getting dragged into projects that are so completely strange??)

    Like

    • Betty – yes, Gail thought this was a really weird mix – Carter Family + KIngston Trio + Devo! You are right, I was a REALLY big Kingston Trio fan, bought all their albums, saw them a couple of times, thought they were great. They really haven’t aged well. As for Neil Young, well, he’s just strange (you could tell the movie would be weird as Neil used the pseudonym “Bernard Shakey” as producer!). But his best stuff is simply amazing.

      Like

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