Mystery Train

All aboard, the train is a favorite subject for many songs, as trains are associated with romance and reunion as well as separation. I am writing about another train song today, having done ‘Midnight Special’ yesterday.   It is not ‘Long Train Running’ by the Doobie Brothers, or ‘Locomotive Breath’ by Jethro Tull, ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ by the Monkees, ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’’ by the Yardbirds, or ‘Casey Jones’ by the Grateful Dead, or anything by Grand Funk Railroad for that matter, as the song I am writing about today has been referred to as the most metaphysically potent song in all of rock and roll.

In late 1953, ‘Mystery Train’ was recorded by a band led by Herman Parker who was better known as ‘Little Junior’.  This song has a chugging rhythm that conveys the train’s steady relentless motion.  Parker had worked with Howlin’ Wolf’s band before he formed his own group, the Blues Flames in 1952.  ‘Mystery Train’ was produced by Sam Phillips for Sun Records and Phillips got a co-writing credit for this song later on.  Parker was a renowned Blues musician from Memphis who is best known for this song.

One of the mysteries about this song ‘Mystery Train’ concerns why the train took the lady.  If she wanted to get on the train, then she would have been riding the train, but being taken by the train makes her sound like some type of criminal.  I guess it is possible that the man did not know that she was leaving him and he started putting all the blame on the train for them splitting up.  Most of the lyrics are straightforward, a long black train that is 16 coaches long comes from nowhere, picks up the singer’s lover, and then the train starts rolling around the bend, pulling out of sight, leaving the station slow and gradual with her onboard headed for parts unknown.  There is also another possibility, perhaps she is dead and the train is taking her body away.  Another perplexing mystery is that the title of this song is never actually mentioned in the song.

The song uses some lyrics that are found in the traditional American folk music group Carter Family’s ‘Worried Man Blues’, which was a folk song that tells the story of a man imprisoned for unknown reasons, “The train arrived, sixteen coaches long”, which is based on an old Celtic ballad, and this became their biggest selling record of 1930.  In 1940, William Smith Monroe who is often referred to as The Father of Bluegrass wrote a song titled ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ aka as ‘Six White Horses’ and it features this same line , “Ah, the train I’m ridin’ is sixteen coaches long.”  In 1958, Pete Seeger also used simular lyrics in his song ‘Poor Boy’, “Longest train I ever did see was sixteen coaches long.”

In 1955, 20 year old heart throb Elvis Presley did more than justice to ‘Mystery Train’ when he recorded it on Sun Records. This was the last record that Elvis made with Sam Phillips before the rockabilly star signed with RCA.  Elvis played rhythm guitar, Scotty Moore on lead guitar and Bill Black on upright bass.  His version was ranked #77 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and this is his best-known song that never became a hit, it did however make #11 on the Country chart in September of 1955.  Moore used a country lead break, and toward the end of the record, there is an echo of the 1946 ‘Sixteen Tons’ by Merle Travis.  Scotty Moore also borrowed the guitar riff from Junior Parker’s ‘Love My Baby’ for Presley’s version of ‘Mystery Train’, the electric guitar solo played by Pat Hare.  Elvis’ version was more aggressive and raw than the original and this enduring classic was the first recording to make Elvis Presley a nationally known country music star.

In 1973, with the approval of Sam Phillips, Robbie Robertson of the Band wrote additional lyrics for ‘Mystery Train’, and the group recorded this version of the song for their Moondog Matinee album.  He added in train 444 and this could be about steam locomotive number 444 which was built in 1911, owned by Savannah & Albany Railroad Company and operated on a 29-mile line in Florida.  Robertson also reverted back to the Worried Man Blues lyrics of “Train arrived”, instead of using Junior Parker’s “Train I ride”, which makes more sense to me.  The results add dark new shadings to a song that always spoke so starkly about a cuckold’s terrifying loss.  They later performed the song with Paul Butterfield for their 1976 ‘farewell’ concert The Last Waltz.  Other artists to cover this song include Woody Guthrie, Lonnie Donegan, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Paul Simon, Ricky Nelson, Tom Fogerty, The Doors, Bob Dylan, The Band, Alvin Lee, Flying Burrito Brothers, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Hank Marvin, Neil Young and the Grateful Dead.

Junior Parker Lyrics

Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Well, that long black train got my baby and gone

Train, train, comin’ ‘round the bend
Train, train, comin’ ‘round the bend
Well, it took my baby, but it never will again
No, not again

Train, train, comin’ down, down the line
Train, train, comin’ down, down the line
Well, it’s bringin’ my baby ‘cause she’s mine, all mine
She’s mine, all mine

Train, train, comin’ ‘round, ‘round the bend
‘Round, ‘round the bend
Train, train, comin’ ‘round, ‘round the bend
‘Round, ‘round the bend
Well, it took my baby, but it never will again
Never will again

The Band Lyrics

Train arrive 16 coaches long
Train arrive 16 coaches long
Well that long black train
Got my baby and gone

Train train rolling round the bend
Train train rolling round the bend
Well it took my baby
Away from me again

Come down to the station
Meet my baby at the gate
Asked the station master
If the train’s running late
He said “if you’re a-waiting
On the 444
I hate to tell you son
That train don’t stop here anymore”

Train train rolling down down the line
Train train rolling down the line
Well it took my baby
And left poor me behind

Heard that whistle blowing
It was the middle of the night
When i got down to the station
The train was pulling out of sight

Mystery train smoking down the track
Mystery train smoking down the track
Well i don’t want no ride
Just bring my baby back

Grateful Dead Lyrics

Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
And the woman I love, she’s on that train and gone
Train, train, rolling round the bend
Train, train, rolling round the bend
Took away my baby, I’ll never see her again
Well I went down to the station, meet my baby at the gate

Asked the station master was the train a-running late
“Son, if you’ve been waiting for the four forty-four
I hate to tell you, boy, that train don’t run here any more”
Train, train, rolling round the bend
Train, train, rolling round the bend
Took away my baby, I’ll never see her again
Well I went down to the station, meet my baby at the gate
Asked the station master was the train a-running late
“Son, if you’ve been waiting for the four forty-four
I hate to tell you, boy, that train don’t run here any more”
Train, train, rolling round the bend
Train, train, rolling round the bend
Well it took away my baby, I’ll never see her again
Took away my baby, I’ll never see her again
Took away my baby, I’ll never see her again

Written for Daily Addictions prompt – Gradual, for FOWC with Fandango – Heart and for Ragtag Community – Justice.

11 thoughts on “Mystery Train

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