Worried Man Blues
02. Worried Man Blues
(Woody Guthrie/Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc., BMI)
Track 2 –Worried Man Blues (MASTER MA 47)
Guthrie learned this widely known country blues from a Carter Family recording of either 1930 or 1935. He sang it on KFVD with Maxine Crissman, and repeatedly included it in songbooks, which suggests just how popular it was with his audiences. Given the importance of the Carter Family in Guthrie’s musical evolution, a bit of history will help track the probable course of this blues.
Alvin Pleasant Delaney was born on the family farm between Hiltons and Maces Springs, in Scott
County, Virginia, on December 15, 1891. The oldest of eight children, A.P., as he preferred to be called, attended school off and on, long enough to learn his letters. He sang bass in his father’s church choir, played a little fiddle, but showed no particular gift for music. He tried working on a railroad gang, then fixing farm machines, and eventually ended up selling fruit trees to farmers in the region. On one of his trips through the hill country, A.P. met 16-year-old Sara Dougherty, who had been raised by an aunt and an uncle in a musical household. (Family legend had it that Sara was singing “Engine 143” while accompanying herself on the autoharp when A.P. first saw her.) He was smitten. Letters led to more visits, and eventually to marriage on June 18, 1915. Sara was five weeks shy of her seventeenth birthday when the newlyweds moved to Maces Spring. A.P. sold trees, farmed, hired out as a carpenter on occasion; Sara minded the house, and, in time, their three children.With family and with neighbors, Sara made music, singing the old songs and ballads to her autoharp or banjo; A.P. occasionally played fiddle, though not with any distinction.
Sara’s first cousin Maybelle Addington attended some of these neighborly gatherings. She was six years old when she first danced and cavorted on the porch in front of an impromptu family string band. Over time, and many visits,Maybelle learned to play autoharp, then banjo, and finally guitar. Over time, and many visits, A.P.’s younger brother Ezra took notice of Maybelle; they would be married two months shy of her seventeenth birthday.
A.P., Sara, and Maybelle – now related to A.P. by marriage and by blood to Sara – eventually melded into the “Carter Family.” They played local churches and town halls, giving informal concerts, before A.P. spotted an advertisement in the Bristol News-Bulletin. A representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company, Ralph Peer, would be in Bristol, which sat on the Tennessee-Virginia border, twenty-five miles as the crow flies from Maces Spring.
Maybelle was the musical glue who held the trio together. She was a gifted musician, and a quick study. “You don’t have to give Maybelle any lessons,” Lesley Riddle, a family friend, told two Carter Family biographers. More than anyone else, she gave the trio its unique sound, both instrumental and vocal. (See Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? [Simon and Schuster, 2002], pp. 131-33.)
While the Carters did not consider themselves professional entertainers, they still thought it might be worth the trip to Bristol. On August 1, 1927, they recorded three songs for Peer and Victor – “Single Girl,Married Girl,” “Wandering Boy,” and “Poor Orphan Child.” In doing so, they changed American popular musics.
The songs were immediate hits, prompting RCA to bring them back to recording studios no fewer than 18 times. Between 1927 and 1943, when the act dissolved, the Carter Family recorded 273 masters for a variety of record labels. (This biographical information was culled from the unpublished doctoral dissertation of the late Edward Kahn, “The Carter Family: A Reflection of Changes in Our Society” [UCLA, 1970] and from Archie Green’s Only a Miner [University of Illinois Press, 1972], p. 393.)
Many of those almost 300 “Carter Family” songs came from friends, others from the family, others still from singers whom A.P. deliberately sought out. As such, he was a folklorist, a songcatcher, however careless he was about sources and dates. In fast-growing Kingsport, Tennessee, just twelve or so miles from Maces Springs, A.P. met a young black guitar player, Lesley Riddle, who preferred to be called “Esley.” Riddle played and sang for A.P., who immediately invited the young man to come to Maces Spring. For the next ten years, the two were constantly on the road, searching for new material to record, despite the barriers thrown up by Jim Crow laws. (Though this was the segregated South, up country, around Maces Spring, there had never been many blacks, and even fewer slaves.Many of the mountainous counties of Appalachia sent their sons off to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Nor was A.P. the only white to pick up songs from blacks. Nick Dawidoff points out in his In the Country of Country [New York: Pantheon Books, 1997], p. 10), that “a number of the most progressive and influential figures” in country music, including Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens, “all had black musical mentors.”
For some ten years, A.P. and Esley were constantly together, looking for singable material, black or white. “He was just gonna get old music, old songs, what had never been sung in sixty years,” Esley explained. Esley also had an ear for a lyric and a tune. “I was his Poll’ Parrot. I was his tape recorder. He’d take me with him and he’d get someone to sing him the whole song. Then I would get it and I’d learn it to Sara and Maybelle.” Later, A.P. told Ed Kahn, the trio would “fix it up to suit their style.” (Kahn, p. 55. The material here about Riddle was adapted from Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg,Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? [Simon and Schuster, 2002], pp. 131-33. An album of Riddle’s music was recorded between 1965 and 1978 by Mike Seeger and Barry Connell, and released by Rounder: Lesley Riddle: Step By Step – Lesley Riddle Meets the Carter Family: Blues, Country, and Sacred Songs, ROUN CD 0299)
Folklorist Ed Kahn recorded a last, poignant moment. A.P. lay dying on November 7, 1960, in Kingsport –where he had picked up so many songs sung by blacks, and transformed them into such classics as “Worried Man Blues.” His mind wandering, A.P. imagined he was in yet another recording session, still singing the old songs he had collected and recorded.