The Prosody of Mystery in “Mystery Train”

Sun Studio, 2016
Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley recorded “Mystery Train” in 1955. Photo by Kate Cauthen.

Okay, so who still cares about the young Elvis and his Memphis-based Sun Records recordings? And why does Elvis’ “Mystery Train” still feel like a mystery to be unraveled, fresh on every listening? Have you heard it recently? C’mon, download it and check it out. Then come back.

[Editor’s note: The song was written by Junior Parker, who released his own recorded version of the song via Sun Records in 1953.]

So? Did you try to count it out? Go back and simply tap out the downbeats. See how you do. I’ll wait.

It can be a little confusing. Simplify it a bit. Forget the intro and start counting downbeats one beat before Elvis comes in with “train arrive.” It’s a pretty brisk tempo.

How many bars do you count before he starts line 2?

Right. Ten bars:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

| / / / / | / / / / | / / / /| / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

Train ar-ri————–ive sixteen coaches long

Then another ten bars:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

| / / / / | / / / / | / / / /| / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

Train ar-ri————–ive sixteen coaches long

Pretty neat. It throws you off balance, both the ambiguous entry (did you expect it there?) and the unusual ten bar phrase. Maybe, um, mysterious, eh?

But made even more mysterious because of the introduction. Now count it. I’ll wait.

Yup, six bars, but with a wrinkle. The first downbeat is pretty foggy, with the guitar starting in the half bar and playing its figure on & 3 &, making it even harder to find the downbeat. So it’s an unusual six-bar intro.

Then the vocal starts back-heavy (after the downbeat) in bar seven – the actual first bar of the ten-bar verse. Even more mysterious.

Only when you get to the “chorus,” the conclusion of the sequence, do you get to a stable 8-bar section, where he slams the door, letting you know what the mystery train has done to him:

Well that long black train got my baby and gone

Note, however, that the front-heavy (starting on the downbeat) “chorus” picks up in the tenth (weak) bar of the verse “Well that…,” making even the stable 8-bar sequence a tad ambiguous. Then the long/gone rhyme puts the finishing touches on the section.

There’s prosody galore in this treatment. The verse is unstable and mysterious – even spooky – while the “chorus” leaves no hope for our hero. It’s a nifty use of a third level of phrasing – how many you have bars in a section.

Even if the Sun Recording artists didn’t think of the song in terms of prosody, you can. And you can use it in your songwriting.

Go get ‘em.

Correction: The original version of this article did not identify Junior Parker as the writer of “Mystery Train.”

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