On Helplessness Blues, singer Robin Pecknold appears preoccupied with matters of selfishness, helplessness and responsibility. "Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?" he asks on this opening track. He explained to UK newspaper The Sun that the song was penned in January 2010 and he wanted "to write something that would pose a number of questions that the rest of the record explores."
Musically, Pecknold cited John Jacob Niles and "some of his melodic tics" as an inspiration for this song. Bob Dylan has alluded to the American musicologist and folk-singer as an early influence on him.