Tip of the Day: Mystery Train

by Eubie on March 7, 2014

Running through our neighborhood is a stretch of railroad that is heavily trafficked. Not a trip out of or into the hood is complete without a respite at one of the many crossroads as a lonesome train rolls by. Every time we see one of those iron horses, we hear Elvis wail that famous refrain from one of the many songs that made him a legend: Mystery Train (1956). We’ve included a video version of the song with lyrics, but it’s the lyrics that continue to perplex us. So, we wanted to throw it open to the crowd: anyone, please tell us, what the hell this song is about? We know that it was written by Junior Parker and Sun Record’s Sam Phillips, and that it borrows directly from Worried Man Blues (first recorded in 1930 by the Carter Family, who have a special place in our hearts), but from there the lyrics are as mysterious as the song’s name would suggest. We know it’s supposed to be a blues song, but why is the song’s narrator singing the blues? Is the train carrying away his dead love? Is he dead and she leaving him cold in the ground as she boards the train for home? Is she coming home to him? It is confusing. See if you can unravel the ‘mystery’ and get back to us… please!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Beck Ho March 7, 2014 at 10:42 pm

I always thought it was a guy moaning that his girl went black and never came back.

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Eubie March 7, 2014 at 11:31 pm

Well, it was written by a black man, so we are doubtful.

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Beck Ho March 7, 2014 at 11:59 pm

Why does the writer have to be the narrator?

Maybe it’s all a coincidence: “16 ***ches long… That long black train got my baby and gone…”, “…coming round the bend…”, etc. And then the pulling-a-train motif: the narrator’s “baby” may not have left him for one dude only but several.

An awful lot of the songs Elvis covered before going into the military were just suffused with lyrics that are interpretable only as sexual. What can “Jailhouse Rock” be about other than
gay prison sex?

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Eubie March 8, 2014 at 12:53 pm

While it’s possible that Junior Parker had your interpretation in mind when he wrote the song, almost the entirety of it comes directly from an ‘explored’ refrain from the song ‘Worried Man Blues.’ Here’s the ‘WMB’ verse in question:

The train arrived, sixteen coaches long
The train arrived, sixteen coaches long
The girl I love is on that train and gone

And there’s no way that ‘Worried Man Blues’ is about the singer’s girl getting a train run on her by a bunch of AA men. But again, even ‘Worried Man Blues’ is not clear whether the singer is dying in prison (thus explaining why he ‘won’t be worried long’). If so, then ‘Mystery Train’ is about the guy dying in prison and his girl leaving him (by way of train) for the last time after their last visit.

Now ‘Mystery Train’ (at least, Elvis’s version), is confusing because the train is both ‘bringing’ and ‘taking’ his ‘baby’ to him and away from him, so it’s not clear what the hell is going on. She’s coming to visit? She’s leaving forever? It’s code for his death, her death (that ‘black train’ of the Dead), or some combination of the two? I think it’s an interesting story, as you have two distinct and important songs of the American canon (‘WMB’ is a ‘country’ standard and ‘MT’ is a ‘rockabilly’ standard), one directly influenced by the other, and each repeating essential tropes of blues music: prison, the girl-he-left-behind, Fate and life’s injustices, etc.

Oh, and you don’t have to leap far to reach the conclusion that ‘Jailhouse Rock’ is about gay sex in prison… yeah, that seems pretty obvious. Which raises the question of why Elvis recorded–and why the public accepted–it when it’s so obviously about that subject… (“you’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see! Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me!” hmmm).

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