#260: 1955, Elvis Presley, Mystery Train

by George_East on August 17, 2011


If there are seven ages of man, there are, I think, five ages of Elvis. Working backwards: Fat Elvis at the end, Comeback Elvis following the 1968 NBC television special, Movie (or Crap) Elvis, Peak Elvis from his signing for RCA in 1956 until he entered the Army and to start it all off, Sun (or Rockabilly) Elvis.  Each period has its fans.

As yesterday was the 34th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death at the age of 42 (it is scary to think that it won’t be long until I’m older than Elvis was when he died) I thought it was a good excuse to post something from that first period, when he was full of promise and energy, and had a rawness that he never really captured again.

Mystery Train was the last of the five singles Elvis recorded for Sam Phillips and is probably my favourite Elvis track.  It has an intro as good as anything that was posted during intros week, as that ‘long black train’ speeds away by drums and guitar. It is an unusual song for its time in that the title of the track is not mentioned in the lyrics of the song (at the time this would only usually happen in the blues when songs would have names after the source of the feeling of the blues like Cross Road Blues) and it is something of a mystery as to why the train in the song is a mystery. 

As I’ve written before the train was often used as a metaphor for escape from the grinding poverty of the south in early country and blues songs.  This is in stark contrast to rock n roll, which was more individualistic and aspirational and placed the car at the centre of its lyrical universe.

What the train is in this song though is a threat – the escape from the south by train to northern cities also split lovers and families up.  For those left behind it was not a source of opportunity but a source of heart break.  In Mystery Train the train takes the singer’s baby away but it also brings her back. We are told that it will never take her away again.  Why is this?  Because he won’t let her go?  Because she won’t ever want to leave him again?  Or is it just wishful thinking on his part?  Perhaps that is the mystery.

RIP Elvis Presley.


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