Hit Lyrics & their Meanings | “Carry on Wayward Son” by Kansas






Song Lyrics have meanings but why are they not always so obvious? Carry on Wayward Son has been a mystery song full of awe that is considered a masterpiece by many but it’s meaning still today is rather elusive.

Written when I was barely around in 1976 still today can be listened to from time to time on radio stations around the  world. I never ran across it that I recall until I became an avid teenage rock fan of some sort in the mid 80′s.

I remember when I first listened to Kansas with this song in particular I fell in love with their music and style that was so different than anything else  I heard, not necessarily better than my other favorites, but just uniquely different; and their lyrics were so poetic. I then wanted to know what they  were saying and what they meant… but at the time I had to settle for catching up with their newer music and those for my other band favorites.

These are their Lyrics:

Carry on my wayward son,
For there’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

Once I rose above the noise and confusion
Just to get a glimpse beyond the illusion
I was soaring ever higher, but I flew too high
Though my eyes could see I still was a blind man
Though my mind could think I still was a mad man
I hear the voices when I’m dreaming’, I can hear them say

Carry on my wayward son,
For there’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

Masquerading as a man with a reason
My charade is the event of the season
And if I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know
On a stormy sea of moving emotion
Tossed about I’m like a ship on the ocean
I set a course for winds of fortune, but I hear the voices say

Carry on my wayward son,
For there’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

Carry on, you will always remember
Carry on, nothing equals the splendor
Now your life’s no longer empty
Surely heaven waits for you

Carry on my wayward son,
For there’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

Recently I sought out find the meaning, but ran across dead ends though managed to find a few hints.  From what I understand, there was an ‘official’ explanation by Kansas on this in an interview sometime after the song was a hit.

They stated as it goes that it was about Vietnam and the war there as 76’ was just a few years after it ended; yet, interpretations for the song continue to be a list long. The lyrics do seem confusing (meaning wise) if it was about Vietnam in some instances, as seductive as they are.

There are 2 important scenes in the Lyrics that are unmistakable… The Wayward son and the flight of Icarus, everything else is left for interpretation. Those 2 events drive the story line as well as do some motives.

To understand how this is used, we need to know some history.

Kansas was under a lot of pressure to make a hit for this album as everything else had fallen short. According to Wiki, Walsh who normally would write songs for Kansas was having writer’s block and Kerry Livgren was taking over much of the songwriting for ‘Leftoverture’, their then fourth album.

This was a chance for Livgren to turn everything around. If he could overcome the pressure, there is a lot of strength that comes from within knowing your Lyrics may reach Millions of people… “If you just get it right”. It was up to him to make the difference and he had all the support, marketing expertise from those around him including the Record Company with their producers and PR savvy.

We don’t know what went on behind closed doors, but one conversation I imagine may have happened from their PR experts at the time is for them to try to write all-encompassing hit song/s… this is a big deal promotion-ally speaking. Now that is easier said than done, and back then they had to impress the radio stations that in turn got impressed by listeners wanting them to replay that new ‘hit’ from Kansas. But I believe they knew he could do it.

What I am getting at is that several or more of the explanations are in place here, not just 1; this song was meant to have double/triple meanings! This was done by design. Yes it was Kerry Livgren who made it happen, not the producers, he was a prolific and brilliant writer who could do it… Hotel California was done the same way – no one knows the meaning of it exactly, because there is more than one in my opinion but I haven’t looked into it further… I do believe Eagle’s lack of any full interpretation has helped it stay among the top songs of all time – but that’s a separate story.

There are 3 different explanations I have seen that strike me as would be a genuine intent by Kerry Livgren. The Vietnam War perspective; the religious point of view; and a precarious teenage boy voyager-ism experience. Those together embraces a large portion of audiences that not 1 explanation could possibly do if all else was equal, and I believe that was the motive. This also helps solidify the branding of the hit and album- by cross branding in this way.

I believe Livgren masterfully combined all 3, and had enough experiences to do so. He did it seamlessly, and had to do it with great conviction.

As a rockstar, he may have experiences with LSD or other drugs, same as many Vietnam soldiers had.. maybe not common knowledge then but as a popular figure on some level he probably knew about some information on what and how things happened over there (Vietnam). He also had his own life and rise to stardom to gather from- you can say he was a Wayword son himself. He was very spiritual as well, though not a christian at the time written.

I believe that he did have a main storyline in his head as he wrote this, and it was about his own life and rise to stardom terminating in this song being the ‘heaven’ or where Kansas would actually ‘Breakout’. He was predicting the popularity of the song itself or the album (“nothing equals the splendor” it would bring), and that’s in fact what happened as the song lead them to fame.

It’s important to understand that as he wrote this, he kept in mind to allow for at least the 3 interpretations above.

If you follow the Lyrics from beginning to end keeping in mind that it’s about His life with the true possibilities of failure, including past failures (such as when Jefferson Airplane flopped for him)… while remembering to allow room for ‘encompassing interpretations’ on the song as this time they had to get it right; then you should find that the pieces fit well.

One way to look at it is the motive and how it ties with the song:
The main audience are 3:

The Vietnam Vet (and families); they are understood what they had gone thru by these lyrics.

Teenagers who try at stardom or other dreams only to fall short; they are consoled, and still encouraged, as they were the natural fans of rock then.

The religious populations and their youth especially; self-explanatory with ‘Wayward son’ better known as prodigal son in christian religion…

How does this main chorus ‘not’ fit any one of these groups?:

“Carry on my wayward son;
they’ll be peace when you are done.
Lay your weary head to rest,
don’t you cry no more”

Questionably on some level it may not fit with the Vietnam vets but that is overshadowed by other strong correlations in the other lyrics and the admittance of Kansas- assuming an interview happened saying so as suggested out there. The motive of maximizing the audiences to sell the records needed really is the driving force here.

The Record Company and friends, along with the fear of failing and the thrill to succeed, drove Kerry Livgren to deliver this song. The meanings are at least 3 fold with Vietnam being it’s public interpretation; but he did this using his own personal journey, including his feeling of the times and events of the day, as his main narrative to the storyline of this Masterpiece.

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