Why does Bob Dylan like “Mystery Train” by Junior Parker (and Elvis Presley)

By Tony Attwood

Mystery Train” was written by Junior Parker in 1953 as a Memphis blues, and it is this version that Bob Dylan has clearly been listening to whhe he recorded his own version with a view to having it included in the Shot of Love album.

Here’s Bob’s edition of the song…


The song itself originally comes from the tradition that gave us songs like “Worried Man Blues” which near the end has the lines

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

Re-using lines from other songs of course is a long tradition in folk and blues, and I doubt that Junior Parker really thought much about what he was up to putting those lines in his song.

Indeed the thinking behind the song, if there was any, is quiite hard to disentangle because as others have mentioned in considering the piece, there is no “Mystery Train” mentioned in the lyrics of “Mystery Train” the song.

So we get to..

Train I ride sixteen coaches long
Train I ride sixteen coaches long
Well, that long black train carries my baby home

but quite why the length of the train is important or significant is never made clear.

It was almost inevitably recorded for Sun Records in Memphis, (where else would it have been made?) in September / October 1953.  The song was not a hit, altough Junior Parker’s previous record “Feeling Good” had been a R&B hit. 

However it certainly did make the composer some money when Elvis Presley recorded it – although by this time Sam Phillips was noted as co-composer.  The Elvis version was released in 1955 as the B side of “I forgot to remember to forget” and by 2003 Rolling Stone had the song listed as number 77 in the list of the greatest songs of all time.   The single reached the top 10 of the Billboard country and western chart and became the first song that gave Elvis a position as a country music star across the US.

Which brings us to the question of why.  Why did Bob think of putting this song on his album?   Here are the lyrics…

Train, train
Comin’ round the bend
Train, train
Comin’ round the bend
Well that long black train
Good Lord she’s gone again

Train, train
Runnin’ down the track
Train, train
Runnin’ down the track
Well it’s got my baby
And he ain’t comin’ back

Train, train
Runnin’ down the line
Train, train
Runnin’ down the line
Well he took my baby
Lord knows he’s ??

Train, train
Runnin’ down the line
Train, train
Runnin’ down the line
Well she took my baby
Good Lord she’s mine all mine

Hey, hey
Hey hey hey

So we might well conclude that there is nothing in the lyrics that stand out when considering the sort of writing Dylan engaged in.   Rather I think it must be the concept of the song – that old Dylan favourite of the railways and moving on, which I’ve mentioned a number of times in this series.

And not just any old moving on – it is the whole moving on concept without knowing where the end point of the journey is.

As I have often mentioned, the classic deliniation of the types of lyrics in popular music gives us three types of song: love, lost love, and dance.   And here we are with lost love – and that classic blues and rock n roll form of lost love – the perfidious woman just gets up and goes.

Plus in Dylan’s version we have the real sound of the train, the clanking of the wheels on the tracks, the howl of the whistle – it is all symbolised therein.

What Bob does is take us to the original concept of the song (not the Elvis version) and tease out every single painful moment of the train taking the woman that the singer posseses.

Of course there is no modern equality of the sexes here: “she’s mine all mine”.

I think the version Bob gives us here is an absolute masterpiece of the blues with added rock; it is just how this music should be.    And my, don’t the singers and musicians sound like they feel it and mean it.

It’s a fantastic rock blues of the era, and a classric rendition.  Thank goodness for outtakes.

Other songs from this series are listed in the Why does Dylan like index

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  1. Mystery solved – The industrialization of America gives songwriters a new ‘objective’ co-relative for expressing the emotions, musically and lyrically, in concrete terms – emotions involved in love lost and regained -riverboats and locomotives; there’s a ‘time lag’ as symbols become entrenched – now we have jet planes.

    Tony, enjoy your flight to Australia.

  2. Of course a couple years after this Neil Young recorded his own version for his Everybody’s Rockin’ album and combines Dylan & Presley’s versions somewhat to give us one of the best moments from that album. Love the drums and chugging guitars in this not to mention the excellent woo woo vocals near the end


    The Band also recorded a great version for the Moondog Matinee album


    And here’s another amazing version they did live with a Paul Butterfield. The harmonica is astonishing!!


    And here’s a version recorded by a John Lennon as a warm up during the Double Fantasy sessions in 1980


  3. “You can’t jump a jet plane
    Like you can a freight train
    So I best be on way
    In the early morning rain”

  4. But I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
    Don’t know when I’ ll be back again
    Oh, babe, I’m hate to go

  5. Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast
    Oh, but what shame, if all we shared can’t last
    I can change, I swear, oh
    See what you can do

  6. 16 coaches ?

    16 can be divided by 2, 4, and 8 and is used in music and weight measurement – for what’s that worth!

  7. Don’t trust them thar written lyrics, no:

    It’s “rollin’ down the line”


    “Lord, Lord, she’s mine, all mine”

    And finally:

    “Just shows she’s mine, all mine”

  8. Note, however, that in other versions, Dylan does sing “Runnin’ down the line”!

  9. Dylan’s version is a mash up, if it was an attempt to combine the original blues version of Jr. Parker and the Rock n Roll version by Elvis. Dylan was a story teller by not much of a vocalist. This didn’t suit his style. Neil Young, the Band, and Butterfield versions all closely emulate the rhythm and beat of the Presley version. But Young’s version has the best musical sound quality of the retreads. In spite of Butterfield introducing it as a blues song, it doesn’t sound much like the original blues version by Jr. Parker. Lennon just butchered it. It was like he didn’t know what he wanted to do with it. Overall, Presley’s version is still the ‘go to’ version. It was also done in a tribute to Elvis by Toby Keith and Joe Perry in 2007 in Las Vegas that was a good or better than any of the above.

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