Unraveling Mystery Train

Elvis Presley recorded his last master session today at Sun Records in Memphis back in 1955. He recorded three songs with Bill Black, Scotty Moore and Johnny Bernero: I Forgot to Remember to Forget, Trying to Get to You, and Mystery Train.

Mystery Train stands as arguably his finest moment on record. It was a true folk song before Elvis sang it. Afterward, it was not. The folk process ended with him as every cover since will attest. The version he sang was based off of the 1953 Sun Records single by Memphis bluesman Little Junior Parker. Parker’s record is beautiful. It’s a slow burn as he sings about a ghostly black train rolling through the back country. It’s almost stately and gives the impression of a funeral train carrying a dead lover to life’s other side. Sam Phillips, who recorded the song, said he and Parker talked about how many coaches were being pulled. Parker was singing fifty coaches long, but Sam had him go back to the source material’s sixteen to make the train sound more rural, more country.

Junior Parker, Mystery Train

The source song was Worried Man Blues, which was first recorded by The Carter Family in 1930. It was a huge hit for them and since has been sung by Woody Guthrie, George Jones, The Blue Sky Boys and well, just about any folk singer you can name. We don’t really know where they got it from. We do know that A.P. Carter didn’t write it even though he claims authorship in the last stanza, and so, we’re forced to assume that he and his traveling companion, Leslie Riddle, picked it up somewhere in the eastern mountains on one of their legendary song catching expeditions. It’s commonly written that it dates back to Celtic origin, but no one seems to site the song source. Like most of A.P.’s songs it was probably a little bit of this and little bit of that. This is how listening to Elvis Presley in the morning can lead to ending the day reading old European broadside ballads and poems.

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

Franz Kafka, The Trial

Worried Man Blues stands with the best of the American existential mountain ballads such as The Cuckoo, Single Girl, and Mole In the Ground in its seemingly cold and hostile worldview: a man crosses a river and on the other side lays down and falls asleep. When he wakes there are shackles on his feet. For an unknown crime he is sentenced to 99 years while a train, sixteen coaches long, takes him away to meet his fate. His crime is never revealed in the song, and the popular view seems to be the Kafkaesque problem of the innocent accused, but perhaps we’re not looking hard enough.

The Carter Family, Worried Man Blues

There are clues. Each shackle is emblazoned with his initials, giving the impression that his arrest was not as random as told by the man himself. The judge makes no mention of his crime, but maybe he didn’t have to. If it was sensational enough to get him a life sentence would there be any need? The personalized leg irons almost seem to allude to The Christmas Carol where Jacob Marley, long in his grave, rattles the chains he forged in life. With that in mind the song echoes the old murder ballads like Banks of the Ohio, Omie Wise, The Knoxville Girl, and Wind and Rain where rivers play their awful dispassionate roles. The songs are all closely related and do have their roots in the old world. Wind and Rain (or The Dreadful Wind and Rain) is often called The Two Sisters. It remains the closest of the above mentioned songs to the 15th Century source material: The Twa Sisters (or The Bloody Miller or Cruel Miller), where sibling rivalry over the love of a man causes one sister to drown the other. Often a Miller, who at times is the girl’s Father, at times not, is an accomplice to the murder. From the dead girl’s bones is crafted a harp or fiddle which, when played, cries of the wrong done to her.

Jody Stecher, Oh, the Wind and the Rain

The Blue Sky Boys, The Banks of the Ohio

Doc Watson, Omie Wise

Shirley & Dolly Collins

We get closer to Worried Man Blues with the 17th century broadside, derived from The Bloody Miller, called William Grisman’s Downfall. Over the next 200 hundred years it would become The Oxford Girl in England, The Wexford Girl in Ireland and eventually The Knoxville Girl in the Appalachian Mountains of America. The jealous sister is gone now and we’re left with an angry man who’s best girl has turned down his marriage proposal. He, like those that came before him, casts the poor girl into a river to drown. He, also like those that came before him, gets caught. This time though, it’s not the girl’s bones that sing, rather he’s rousted from bed the morning after his crime and arrested – turned in by his own dear Mother! This is a man with plenty to worry about. Speculatively, Worried Man Blues picks up the story from the killer’s perspective. Mercifully, poor old mom is left out of having to implicate her own son as he falls asleep by the river itself rather than the comfort of his own bed. From this reading it sounds less like the case of a man falsely accused and bewildered at his fate and more like the continuum of ancient broadside tradition serving up just desserts.

  The Louvin Brothers, The Knoxville Girl

Junior Parker takes the story one step further by casting himself as the aggrieved lover, the rightful suitor robbed of his bride. He jumps aboard the ghost train, “the train,” he sings, “that took my baby and [will] do it again.” The “do it again” line is where the creep sets in. The train brings her back at the end, but this ghostly spectre is simply there to haunt with it’s coming and going. Listen to Parker give that steam engine hiss as the song fades out or is it a restless spirit yowl?

Elvis knew his roots. As Greil Marcus pointed out The Carter Family where part of his birthright and he listened to them extensively. As so often was the case though during the Sun years, there was before Elvis and then after Elvis. Scotty Moore’s echo drenched guitar kicks off the song and as the band falls in behind him and Elvis’s vocals soar down over top he doesn’t sound cowed in the least that this long black train, sixteen coaches long, has his baby. He sounds tougher than the spectre train, a man with the power to bring back his girl from beyond, or even better a man who doesn’t just believe he can, but has never considered he couldn’t. That’s just what he does, too: “Train, train, coming around the bend, well it took my baby, but it never will again, no, never will again. Train, Train, coming down the line, bringing my baby, because she’s mine all mine.” There’s no ghostly hiss at the end of this song, there’s the sweet and joyous yelp of victory.

There was this girl who was murdered over and over again for 400 years and although her killers paid the price along with her her spirit could not rest. Not until a man from Tupelo, Mississippi stood up and said “no, this isn’t how this thing goes,” and went and got her back. A man who can do that can change the whole world.

Elvis Presley, Mystery Train


About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Acknowledgements, Bluegrass, Country, Folk, Honky Tonk, Music, Oldtime, Pop, Radio, Rock, Rockabilly, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Unraveling Mystery Train

  1. David P. Smith says:

    Looking for pictures of a young Willie Nelson, I just stumbled on to your blog and have spent the last hour perusing and listening….loving it. I did a country and western show on campus community radio here in Victoria, BC, Canada for 8 years. I am a musician and started a blog this year called “a song a week” in which I do originals and covers, somewhere around the summer it turned into “a song” as life and running my business
    intruded on my creative pursuit. Not sure why I’m telling you all this, I guess from reading your blog I feel a certain kindredship. You are much more well versed and educated in C+W and folk than I, just want to say thank you for sharing your passion and knowledge.


    • Iaan Hughes says:

      Hey David, glad you found the blog and thanks for the kind words. I haven’t been keeping up on it as much as I’d like, but you now how that goes. It’s nice to know its there for when time is more considerate. You guys have an proud county tradition up there, too. Some great music comes from north of the (my) border.

      A song however often sounds good to me.

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