The Story Behind the Autobiographical Kansas Hit “Carry On Wayward Son”

By the time Kansas was ready to work on their fourth album Leftoverture, singer Steve Walsh, who was also the primary songwriter with guitarist-keyboardist Kerry Livgren, was suffering from writer’s block. To get the album rolling Livgren took on more of the writing duties, writing a song a night.

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“Back then I wrote maybe 70 percent of each album, with Steve Walsh supplying the rest,” said Livgren in 2004. “And on the very first day of rehearsals, Steve came to me and said that he had nothing—not a single song. I don’t relish that kind of pressure, but with hindsight, it really brought out the best in me.”

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Just two days before the band was set to record Leftoverture, Livgren had one last song to present, “Carry on Wayward Son.” Once released, “Carry On Wayward Son” become the band’s first major hit and skyrocketed them into stardom.

The Meaning: Livgren’s Lyrical Autobiography

The song, according to Livgren, is autobiographical. “Parallel to my musical career I’ve always been on a spiritual sojourn, looking for truth and meaning,” said Livgren. “It was a song of self-encouragement. I was telling myself to keep on looking and I would find what I sought.”

Livgren starts his self-motivational speech right from the beginning:

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

Up until this point, Kansas had three albums out and were known for their solid live performances, yet they still remained on the outer edges of greater success. The band still didn’t have a single that would make it on to radio, much less the charts.

“It was a frustrating time,” said Livgren. “Having opened for just about every group you could possibly name, we had become such a hot property that nobody would play with us anymore. For instance, Mick Fleetwood later told me that Fleetwood Mac died a death every time we went on first. We were a hard act to follow.”

Throughout the song, Livgren talks about rising above his downtrodden state—and carrying on.

Once I rose above the noise and confusion
Just to get a glimpse beyond this 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

“The Pinnacle”

“Carry On Wayward Son” is also linked to their song “The Pinnacle,” the closing track on the band’s previous album Masque, as a continuation of the lyrics I stood where no man goes / Above the din I rose / Life is amusing though we are losing / Drowned in tears of awe.


Although Livgren became an evangelical Christian in 1980, he said the songs he wrote up until that point, including “Carry On Wayward Son” and the band’s 1977 hit “Dust in the Wind”—weren’t religious but centered more about “searching” for something.

“I felt a profound urge to ‘Carry On’ and continue the search,” said Livgren in a 1984 interview. “I saw myself as the ‘Wayward Son,’ alienated from the ultimate reality, and yet striving to know it or him. The positive note at the end, surely heaven waits for you, seemed strange and premature, but I felt impelled to include it in the lyrics. It proved to be prophetic.”

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

The Late ’70s

Following the success of “Carry On Wayward Son,” which became the band’s first song to chart on the Top 40, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, by the late 1970s, Kansas became a major headlining act and sold out the largest venues—and even chronicled this era with the release of their double album, Two for the Show, a compilation of the band’s live performances from the 1977 and ’78 tours.

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In 1977, Kansas followed up the success of Leftoverture with their fifth album, Point of Know Return, and hit the ballad “Dust in the Wind,” another song penned by Livgren about the impermanence of things.

“Carry On Wayward Son” remains a signature song for Kansas—now consisting of founding members Phil Ehart and Rich Williams along with longtime guitarist Billy Greer, David Ragsdale, Tom Brislin, and Ronnie Platt—and a classic rock standard.

Photo by Getty Images/Bob Riha, Jr.

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