“Mystery Train”: Rock & Roll RePast

Posted: June 7th, 2018 | Filed under: Music, Ruminations | 1 Comment »

If contemplating the origins of rock & roll, the music that delivered a haymaker to Eisenhower’s America in the mid 50s, one can never stray too far from Elvis.

Soon enough after Dewey Phillips big reveal on WHBQ560, and his forsaking of that job at Crown Electric, the undisputed King of Rock & Roll was leading the charge around the globe, where back-beated shots to the solar plexus jolted pop culture for the good and the forever.

The airwaves were freed at last. In rushed Little Richard, shouting rockers about the trannies of rural Ga., Lieber and Stoller acolytes with tales of unsoiled young lasses with yellow ribbons in their hair, and the Killer with balls aflame. No longer just “race music” as it was then dubbed, the real stuff raced over from the WLOUs on the edges of the dial into pure, unadultered, transistorized WAKYness.

It was more than a bit prescient that the impresario of 706 Union Ave 38103, Sun Studio’s major-domo Sam Phillips — no blood relation to DJ Dewey — was adamant that the young Mr. Presley cover Junior Parker’s enigmatic “Mystery Train” not long before the boss man sold E’s contract to RCA for pocket change.

(Ever sly, Phillips surely wanted the royalties he’d get. He’d insinuated his name as a co-writer alongside Parker’s.)

But the point is, we’d probably never have been beguiled as we have with this mystifying tale of love lost, love regained or both, if Elvis and his mates Scotty Moore and Bill Black hadn’t put this bit of “perfect imperfection” to acetate.

But they did. Legacy ensued. Mystique lingers on.

Elvis’s insistent rendition of “Mystery Train” begat that of the Band who featured it on “Moondog Matinee” and killed it live with Butter on harp at The Last Waltz. And begat a syncopated take by the Neville Brothers. And begat the rendering by the  duo of Chrissie Hynde and Jeff Beck. And begat a chuggling version by Jerry Lee Lewis. (There’s a video youtubing in the cybergalaxy where the Killer straps on a six-string at a live show, while sideman Kenny Lovelace solos on rock & Roll fiddle. Who knew the Rocker with Nine Lives played guitar?)

Oh, and Junior Wells & Buddy Guy, pimped out to the max gangsta-style in ’74 a few years after blues soul icon Parker’s passing, paid their respects, discothequed wah wah style. It made sense. They were blues guys.

But the rest?

Who knows why? Intrigued, one supposes.

All of which came to mind because it was “Mystery Train” that inveterate rock & roll savant Paul Simon chose instead of doo wop as the reverential oldie to play at the inaugural Toronto stop of his final tour.

“Mystery Train” is a song that never fails to mesmerize. And confuse.

We are captivated, but you gotta start at the start.

1953. Memphis Recording Service at the address listed above.


Confusing from the first line.

Is Parker singing, “Train arrive sixteen coaches long?”

Or, is Parker singing, “Train I ride sixteen coaches long?”

Truth is we are not sure. At least, I am not, and I’ve listened a bunch. Those that have tackled the tune aren’t certain. Some articulate the former, some the latter. Some show deference to the Boozoo Chavis School of Inarticulation and slur their way through.

Those who would portend they’re telling us the lyrics at the Google don’t really know. And nobody’s around from the song’s germination in ’53 to weigh in.

If Parker’s last verse, a happy ending of sorts which contradicts the rest of the song — the train in question is bringing his baby back home, sings he — then the first interpretation rings correct. Except that that train’s taken his baby and is going to do it again. At least that’s what he tells us early on.

As for the second interpretation, the one I think Junior’s singing, you gotta ask: Is he really riding a train that’s taking his baby away?

Now here’s the King.

Propulsive. Lots of reverb.

Demanding. Assertive. “Well it took my baby/ But it never will again.”

For shits, giggles and a back in the day perspective, here’s Buddy and Junior doin’ the do.

It’s often written by those obsessed with rock & roll that the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go Round the Roses” is the most perplexing of tunes.

What is Sally’s secret?

Why won’t the roses give it up?

Bewildering, but I still say Junior Parker and his creation wear this crown.

Yet, the plot thickens. In some later versions, like that of Levon Helm and the Band, there’s a verse from . . . well, from where? . . . out of the blue . . . the spirit of Junior Parker at a seance?

“Come down to the station/ To meet my baby at the gate/ Asked the station master/ If the train is running late/ He said ‘If you’re waiting on the 444/ That train don’t stop here anymore”

That particular mystery train was pulling out of sight in the middle of the night, smokin’ down the track. The teller of the tale “don’t want no ride,” he laments he “just want my baby back.”

Turns out it was Dylan’s old backup ensemble that fashioned the new verse. With Sam Phillips permission. Of course.

Garth Hudson’s eery organ musings further enshroud all the mysterioso.

And then there’s this.

As is the norm in the folk tradition, Parker borrowed, just as the Band added on.

Listen to the Carter Family’s “Worried Man Blues,” recorded in 1930, which includes this verse:

“The train arrived/ Sixteen coaches long/ The train arrived/ Sixteen coaches long/ The girl I love is on that train and gone.”

Who knows where and from whom A.P. Carter pilfered/borrowed/ expropriated the theme?

Love arrives. Love departs. That reality arrived with humanity itself.

Trains come. Trains go. Sweethearts, inamorata have been aboard from the get go, early 19th C., even before De Witt Clinton.

So, yeah, the truth: Can’t stray too far from Elvis. His covering/ giving new voice to/ anglicizing “Mystery Train.” Black Delta Blues. White Mountain Gospel. The rural church. The backwoods juke joint. Post WWII electrification.

“Mystery Train” grabbed us by the short and curlies.

We remain under its spell, waiting at the station for some sort of resolution that never seems to arrive.

— c d kaplan


One Comment on ““Mystery Train”: Rock & Roll RePast”

  1. 1 Ken said at 8:54 am on June 7th, 2018:

    The stage coach was a start but it was building the rails for that TRAIN that made the USA coast to coast and you exposed the train as being a consistent mode of transporting us far beyond geographic boundaries

Leave a Comment