The first time I heard this song was in the early Nineties. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t an old record or the radio, but it was on USA Network late one night on cable TV. I came across a film called “The Last Waltz”, which is a great concert film about The Band’s last live show. Guest musicians included everyone from Neil Young to Neil Diamond and many more, including Bob Dylan. Of all the great songs in the film, “Mystery Train” was probably my favorite. It was a duet with The Band’s drummer/vocalist Levon Helm and blues harmonica player Paul Butterfield.
To my ears, this song had it all — simple, straightforward lyrics, but it was bluesy, rockin’, and a little mysterious. (To my knowledge, The Band’s version is the only one with that catchy guitar riff a la Robbie Robertson.) Basically, it was about guy trying to figure out where the mystery train has taken “his baby.” Sounds like a good reason to sing to me.
As time went on, I found out credit for popularizing the song really went to The King: Elvis Presley. He recorded it at Sun Studios in Memphis and it was released in 1955. However, the original version (1953) was written and recorded by fellow record label mate Junior Parker (the ensemble Little Junior’s Blue Flames). I’ve even seen Sun Records Guru Sam Phillips given a songwriting credit on this one.
The original has the train-like instrumentation and vocals on it. It reminds me of the tune “Night Train” in that way.
“Mystery Train” is a song that has absolutely taken on a life of it’s own. The beauty of classifying the Elvis version as rockabilly says something to me — it’s not really a straight blues or a country song — it lives in some great place in between both musical worlds. This version by Tom Fogerty is a great example.
This is a song which has been recorded by A LOT of musicians: Neil Young, UFO, The Staples, AND SO MANY MORE…..Scotty Moore, The Nighthawks, Amazing Rhythm Aces, Brian Setzer (Stray Cats, ’68 Comeback Special), Link Wray, Alvin Lee, Jerry Reed. I’m partial to the guitar playing of Pete Anderson — longtime associate of Dwight Yoakam. Hopefully, there’s a version that suits your taste. Viva, Mystery Train!
Till next time, keep your Mojo on the Horizon!