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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Carry On Wayward Son": mega-hit motivation

I've felt down and out lately, but hearing Kansas on the radio got me mentally trending the right way to remedy that.


I’ll be the first to admit that my motivation has been lacking as of late. With all my classes increasing in intensity post-spring break and the general chaos of barreling through the last weeks of the semester — and in my case my undergraduate career — I end up fearful of the future and failure more than I do willing to grab the bull by the horns.


It’s with this backdrop that I find my selection for today as appropriate as they come, because even as I feel down and out, I have people who are in my corner and believe I’ll make something of myself. When I heard Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” as I was driving last week, I thought of those people that support me; it was as if they were joining Steve Walsh et al. in singing the song to me, hoping to motivate me. In the short term, I guess it’s worked, because here I go writing about this song!

“Carry On Wayward Son” grabs listeners’ attention right away with a rare acapella intro in three-part harmony. It’s a daring approach to an opening, but holy cow, does it work. The consistent vocal rhythm and the cleanliness of the harmonies does more work in my mind than the lyrics to bring people in. Once they’re hooked, Kansas enter in full, spurred on by drummer Phil Ehart, and from there, the band enters full-on rock territory.


Beyond the intro/chorus vocals, Kerry Livgren’s first guitar riff is likely what sticks in people’s heads the most; it is certainly the most salient instrumental feature in mine. Livgren works with groups of three within a typical 4/4 time signature and otherwise normal four-bar groupings: the first statements within the riff take up three beats each, while the riff overall takes three measures. Even if you aren’t able to discern exactly how long everything takes, you can tell it’s different, and that alone makes it ear-catching… not to mention that the riff also does a very functional job of outlining key notes, as well as introducing an interesting note at its conclusion. For a song in the key of A minor, the note F-sharp may feel out of place. It turns the fourth chord (D) major, and it overall gives off a brighter feeling. However, F natural is more common in “Carry On Wayward Son” than F-sharp, making Livgren’s choice all the more intriguing. (More on this later.)


After another figure involving threes, this time triplets, the lyrics enter. With flairs of the myth of Icarus (“I was soaring ever higher / But I flew too high”) and Socrates (“And if I claim to be a wise man, well / It surely means that I don’t know”), Walsh presents a narrator unsure of his place in the grand scheme of things. For some reason, I’ve always felt that the piano Livgren plays adds to the sort of mystic nature of it all, increasing both the doubt and the intrigue in the verse lyrics. For all the doubt the verse presents, though, the iconic chorus reins everything back in. Its message never strays: keep going. You can get there. It doesn’t say when you’ll get there, but it promises peace and rest at the end of it all, and honestly, that’s enough for me right now.

The chorus also provides the jumping-off point for multiple other guitar riffs. The riff into the bridge stands out for me, but continuing from an earlier thread, I want to talk about that F-sharp note, because its inclusion really makes sense to me (and, as I found out in the process of writing, to music YouTuber 12tone) in the song’s final flourishes. After the final chorus, there’s the E minor section that has led into some of the verses. Alright, nothing crazy… but then, all of a sudden, it goes up a step into F-sharp minor. That decision ties up a loose end that had been present for nearly the song’s entire length, while also increasing the energy right up to the end. I have no idea how Kerry Livgren thought of the F-sharp minor section, but to me it’s so darn satisfying — whether intentionally or not, it gives reason for one of the more interesting and salient aspects of the entire track.


“Carry On Wayward Son” is a song I’ve known for a long time — and one with memories tied to my high school years through my band days — but it definitely takes on a deeper meaning for me now as I try to motivate myself to work harder than ever. There’s a short-term end in sight, and I’ll be at peace once I get there, but beyond that I stare into the undetermined expanse that is my future. Hopefully this song’s words will embody my philosophy as I stare down my next chapter.

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