Like The Crossroads, like Stagger Lee, like The Day The Music Died, like Woodstock, the Mystery Train has transcended mere songhood, has transcended even its own storied circumstances, and has become one of the core mythological elements of rock and roll.
This is no mean feat for a song that uses only 77 words, a mere 34 of them unique, but it pays to get in on the ground floor, I guess. Now, I'm no cultural anthropolgist, I'm no ethnomusicologist, I'm no Alan Lomax. I'm not even Greil Marcus, who managed to whip up 432 pages on those 34 words 35 years ago, and is now in his fourth printing.
I'm just a guy who used to have too many records and now has too many mp3's. But still, I'm pretty sure that Elvis' "Mystery Train" was not the first rock and roll record. The song was Presley's fifth single for Sun Records. Bill Haley had charted with "Rock Around the Clock" before Sam Phillips even knew Elvis Presley's name.
And it was Junior Parker, not Elvis Presley, who had first recorded "Mystery Train."
But Haley's tunes, though seminal, never quite reached Into the Mythic, and Parker's original--though it features a lead guitar break possibly superior to the one Scotty Moore provides for Elvis--wasn't really rock and roll.
So it is, perhaps, "Mystery Train," and specifically Elvis' version, that laid in place for us one of the very first building blocks of a rock and roll mythological vocabulary, a dynamic foundation piece that artists like Jimi Hendrix, Blackfoot, and Horton Heat among many, many others could draw on, and could expand upon.
The song is dynamic, and it is flexible, and was written that way on purpose, it seems. Parker's original was a dark, downbeat and smoky rhythm and blues number, while Presley's version has a brighter and more country sheen. In both versions, though, the words as sung manage to invoke both the pain of loss (as his baby leaves on the long black train) and the delicious anticipation of reunion (as the train comes round the the bend with his baby on).
For an easy and quick illustration of this duality, just think of how Jim Jarmusch, in the film he made that borrowed its title from Elvis' song, both opens the proceedings (as the characters file into Memphis) and closes them (as our changed characters split town, or attempt to) with the very same version of the very same song. Coming and going, absolutely.
So a duality common to both, yes, but there is a difference in the two readings of the song at hand: in Parker's take, the joy of reunion is muted because he knows his baby is just gonna leave again. In Elvis' version, it's the pain of separation that's muted, because he knows she won't be leaving anymore.
It's the difference between a blues and a raveup, between a dirge and a jubilant stomp.
For ever and after the "celebratory whoop," as Rolling Stone calls the cry with which Elvis ends his vocal*, the lexicon of rock and roll had been altered and enriched immeasurably, and artists who might have been little children when Elvis, Scotty and Bill stepped into that Memphis studio, or who might even have been unborn, would later know that a very powerful connotative tool had been added to their kit.
It's not the train that took Jimi Hendrix' girl away, in "Hear My Train A-Coming." Actually, Jimi's looking to leave town so he can make it big, come back and buy that lonesome town. No matter. It's still impossible to think of Hendrix' song without thinking of Elvis'. Though Hendrix is known to have been a fan of Presley, and is known to have attended a Presley show in Seattle in 1957, this is not to claim---necessarily--that Hendrix had "Mystery Train" in mind when first performing "Hear My Train A' Coming." But if not, I will say it's impossible for the listener to hear the second without conjuring the first.
In other cases, the overtones are more overt. When I was 14, start-up (and now long-gone) Ft. Lauderdale radio station K-102 was playing the shit out of Blackfoot and their debut album Strikes, with special preference given to the lead single, "Train Train." And in December of 1979, at the infamous Hollywood Sportatorium, I even saw the band play the tune live, during a set which seriously blew away Foreigner, their headliners. Boy, thinking back, it's almost impossible to describe how much heavier Blackfoot was than those lame-ass Brits . . . .
Anyway. It was kinda interesting with "Train Train," because when I finally heard the chorus to "Mystery Train," it was like an old friend, because I already knew it in its guise as the chorus to the Blackfoot song. And I see now, as I refresh my memory, that Mssrs. Medlocke and Spires even made sure in their lyrics to namecheck the town where "Mystery Train" was recorded. Just to, you know, make sure that everyone understands what the deal was, that everyone understands what all this smokin' southern rock was ultimately drawing from.
That's how that mythological vocabulary I was talking about earlier develops its depth of meaning: newer songs influenced or informed by the older are layered onto the original, alternate readings, alternate interpretations get heaped on top, making the whole mythos that much larger, with that much more heft. Back when I was in college, I studied how things went much the same way in the development of the Grail legends: at a certain point, consonance or consistency ceases even to matter, because discrepancies simply add to the richness of the whole cycle. The mythos can be omnivorous. If you're singing about trains, it'll likely take you on. It never mattered to the mythos whether she was coming or going, and it doesn't matter anymore where that train station was, or why you get on board, or what color the train is, or who the conductor is.
Of course, not every artist who writes or performs a song with the word train in the title is necessarily referencing this vocabulary. "Train Kept A-Rollin'" in any of its guises is a lot more about the woman than the train. The Cure's "Jumping Someone's Train" is about the bandwagon nature of fads and fashion. The Melvins' "Goose Freight Train" seems to be, like most of their songs, about heroin.
But "Mystery Train" runs so deep as an archetype; if you're employing the image of a train as a metaphor for some larger concept, you've likely conjured up the powerful spirit of "Mystery Train." Even if you've never even heard of the thing. Whether that metaphor's of flight in the face of ennui, escape in the face of oppression, for the loss of someone gone without, or for the lack of any someone at all, the Mystery Train has some gravitas to impart, and some context to add.
Which is how Horton Heat's "Lonesome Train Whistle" or the Velvets' "Train Round the Bend" or even the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" can also be found without too much trouble to reflect back upon Sun Records catalog # 223A.
Actually, the first version of the song I heard was by UFO, and it probably remains the heaviest cover of the song I've heard. And my favorite is probably the one done by The Stray Cats. So I'll include them, too, what the hell.
Elvis Presley - Mystery Train
File under: Number one Country Hits
Little Junior Parker & The Blue Flames - Mystery Train
File under: Less Famous Originals
UFO - Mystery Train
File under: Bands Named After Unexplained Phenomena
The Stray Cats - Mystery Train
File under: Tattooed Love Boys
These files were removed June 30, 2010 after I received a DMCA takedown letter. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.
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*Sam Phillips claims the cry was Presley's laughter because Elvis had thought he'd fucked up and ruined the take. Sounds like a true story to me, but keep in mind we're talking more about mythology here than we are the truth. So "celebratory" it is . . . . (Return)