In the early part of twentieth century, especially around the Depression era, many people were prosecuted for vagrancy because they had nowhere to go. Having nowhere to go is a great theme for a song like this because it can be sung both as tragic and as liberating. On the one hand, having nowhere to go represents destitution, loss of home, and sadness that was a painful reality. It’s not as if these people wanted to have nowhere to go. On the other hand, those lines can also represent a kind of liberation. To have a carefree life, one that allows a person to lie down to sleep at a river, implies a basic trust, a quality of contentment with having few material goods, and the notion that it ought to be perfectly permissible for a person to sleep on a river bank. Politics or idealism aside, both of these interpretations convey a basic American value: the individual should be respected. Arresting an individual for simply sleeping on the bank of a river punishes the one who is already suffering and not able to find help or resources to change his or her condition at the moment. This person ought to be helped, not arrested. Arresting a person who doesn’t want anything, isn’t bothering anything or anyone, and enjoys the restless life of a vagabond ought to be left alone and allowed to keep moving.
To wake up with shackles on one’s feet, literally or figuratively, connects people who sing this song. It’s an uncomfortable reality. The song expresses a truth about having to suffer something that can’t be avoided. Singing this song acknowledges the problem by naming it without judgment, telling how the experience feels, and even providing a bit of hope in the song’s refrain: “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song / I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long.”
The hope can be a “this too shall pass” in the short run of living a life, or it can be the idea that worries will end once life is over and the afterlife has begun. The capacity to interpret it lightly or seriously adds to the longevity of the song. I could sing this song in good times and bad, could sing it to laugh or cry. Either way, I’ll be getting through an experience in a good way: by paying attention and telling about it. When I sing the song, I think about the things that shackle my feet and the idea that at some level, many things that happen to us are not our fault or in our control, but we suffer their consequences anyway, justly or not. I’m the kind who rails against injustice, and suffering is what I decry most. The songs in bluegrass are a place for human experience to dwell through art with all of its emotion, fact, and story. This art supports humanness in the most sustainable way: without hope or despair but with awareness, intelligence, and compassion, as the great writers have recommended.