I got this from Woody Guthrie, of course. I think pretty much everyone on the folk scene got it from Woody. It must have been one of the first songs I learned to play and sing, because I feel like I always knew it.
It’s the kind of archaic blues, or pre-blues, that seems to have been very common among African American singers at the turn of the century but had mostly fallen out of fashion with black listeners by the time recording came along. So these kinds of songs were mostly recorded by white players and tend to be thought of as country music — which is kind of silly, in a way, since it says right in the title that it’s a blues. Like dozens of other songs, Woody got it from the Carter Family, who did a nice version with Maybelle playing the melody on guitar. I’ve reworked it in a different key, and picked up some licks from Sam McGee’s “Railroad Blues.”
I was recently listening to many hours of interview with Maybelle and Sara Carter for the American Epic project, and found Ed Kahn (a folklore PhD student who did his dissertation on the Carters back in the 1960s) asking Sara where they got each song. For example:
Ed Kahn: Do you remember anything about Worried Man Blues, how you learned that or where it came from?
Sara Carter: No, I don’t remember where we learned that, but we heard somebody sing it.
Ed Kahn: Now, A.P. said something about that he learned the chorus of it from a convict gang. Or from a convict.
Sara Carter: Well, he probably did. I don’t remember where we did learn that.