If you’re going to be a purist about it, San Francisco Bay Blues isn’t strictly a train song. The opening verse has our narrator telling us that his baby left him and took off on an ocean liner, and then the rest of the song is about how bummed he is that she’s gone. He says it’s all his fault because of how he treated her, which was a mistake because she was the best he ever had. He feels like he wants to die, but if she’d just come back, it would be like he was born again.
It’s not until after two verses and a solo break that he gets round to thinking about trains. He just gets done telling some third person that the lady he’s crazy about doesn’t love him anymore when he switches to addressing his girl directly:
Think I’ll catch me a freight train
’cause I’m feel in’ blue
Ride all the way to the end of the line
Thinkin’ only of you
Of course, she’s miles at sea, so she can’t hear him. He’s basically talking to himself. Then in the next verse, he says he thinks he can still her calling his name. This loss is clearly driving him out of his mind—something he had forecast in the second verse (“She don’t come back, think I’m gonna lose my mind”). What else are you going to do when you’re in the depths of despair? Hopping a freight train is the beginning of many a great transformative journey. Only problem is that he acknowledged up front that this whole situation was his fault. He’d been enough of a douche that his lady headed out for Russia or something. That’s pretty cold, man. So even if he rides that train to the end of the line, he’s still gonna be looking at the same dude in the mirror. Oh, well. Maybe he’ll learn something on the way.
I first heard this song when Eric Clapton did it on Unplugged and immediately fell in love with it. The lyrics and the chord progression are classic blues, and there’s a cool, repeating walking bass line from the C to the A7 chord that I was proud to figure out in my very early days of playing guitar (with a little help at 0:38 to 0:40 in the video below).
When you come to this song through this Clapton version, as I did, you might think the kazoo part from 1:34 through 1:56 is done solely for comic effect. But the fact is that it was a tribute to the man who wrote the song, Jesse Fuller. San Francisco Bay Blues was Fuller’s most famous song, and many people besides Clapton have covered it, including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon. Here’s what Clapton said about why he played it an an interview published in Guitar World magazine in 1993:
COLETTI: What inspired you to do “San Francisco Bay Blues”?
CLAPTON: I don’t know. I’ve heard several versions of it, but the first one I heard was performed by Jesse Fuller—and it was Jesse Fuller as a one-man band. He had two bass drums, a foot bass, harmonica, kazoos and a great, big 12-string guitar. It was one of those songs he played in pubs to get free beer, so it’s very accessible on a sing-along level. I just wanted to do this song because it’s never gone away—just like “Hey Hey” and “Alberta.” These songs have never left my head; they’re always there in a part of my life.
Here’s a video of what Clapton’s talking about, from 1968. He introduces the tune as “the song that got me so much money.” (Sounds kind of like Cat Stevens talking about Peace Train in 1976, doesn’t it?) Then he actually stops his own momentum to tune up a little. But he’s fun to watch. He’s got all the instrumentation Clapton mentioned. And he does a kazoo solo from 2:25 through 2:58, then goes to the harmonica and back to the kazoo.
If you read a little about Fuller, you’ll see that he was a “one-man band” (he called himself the “Lone Cat”) and decided to become one because it was such a pain to find other musicians who didn’t spend all their time drinking and gambling. He apparently knew trains really well. He started working as a young boy in Georgia, before he was 10 years old, and he rode freight trains to get to work. He learned guitar chords from a woman named Big Estelle, who he met down by the railroad. When he was older, he moved out to California and settled in Oakland. He worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for years before trying his hand as a musician. So clearly parts of these lyrics came from experience. Now I fell kind of bad for busting on him, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.