Eric Clapton/Lil’ Son Jackson: Travelling alone

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In his new album, Eric Clapton has interpreted a wide range of great roots music. Jamie Keddie has just created a lovely lesson on his relaunched lesson site, Lessonstream, built around a song that Clapton reinterpets beautifully on the album, How Deep is the Ocean, and which Jamie uses to teach questions with.

In the song I’ve chosen for you here, Clapton adds electric grit. It’s alongside the original recording by Lil’ Son Jackson.

My question for you: The lyrics are rather mysterious:

I ain’t gonna tell nobody what that Santa Fe have done for me
If you want to know baby, you sure have to come and see.
81’s in the yard, 82’s out on the road
81 makes you a living, 82 puts you out the door
Nobody knows my trouble but the good Lord above
Well you know just how I feel if you ever have been in love.
You know I can’t go down that big road by myself
If you won’t come with me I can’t take nobody else
(or Clapton’s version: …I’ll carry somebody else)

Who or what do you think 82 and 81 are? Your speculations are welcome!

Eric Clapton’s version

Lil’ Son Jackson’s original:

englisch lernen mit liedern 🙂 learning english with songs


10 Responses

  1. I’m glad you are back blogging! Happy new year, Anne! I have no idea what 82 and 81 are, but I hope you’ll let us know… Does it have anything to do with prisons or gambling?

  2. Hi there Anne, from me too, welcome back and all the best for 2011.
    Like Markus I haven’t been able to throw any light on 81 & 82 so I’m in suspense! Is there a prize for the winner?

  3. Happy New Year both and all 🙂
    Well, like you, Markus, I think it has to do with prisons. The New Mexico State penitentiary is in Santa Fe. Prisoners are often refered to by their number. “81’s in the (prison) yard, 82’s out on the road, 81 makes you a living, 82 puts you out the door” could mean that prisoner 81 may help the singer survive prison life (make a living = earn the money you need), but 82 will help him escape.
    But I’m just guessing here, and nothing published online in any way suggests that Melvin “Lil’ Son” Jackson would have had first-hand experience of being in jail. He was an auto mechanic who recorded music from 1948 to about 1955, which he gave up after car wreck, with a short comeback in 1960.
    Thanks for your comments, and I hope you enjoy this record as much as I did!

  4. My first thought was that they are engines, as in train or locomotive engines.
    Maybe i just spent too long waiting for the 94 bus when i was a kid.

  5. Hi Chris, I know what you mean. I was wondering about that, too. There’s the Santa Fe Railway. Also: remember the old counting rhyme:
    “Engine engine number nine
    going down Chicago line.
    If the train goes off the track
    Do you want your money back?”
    If that someone said “yes”, you said: “y-e-s-and-you-are-it.”
    And if that someone said “no”, you had to start counting again.

  6. Got this in the mail:
    I tried to post a comment about the lyrics to Travelin’ Alone to your article @ but don’t see my comment and don’t know if comments are moderated, or there was just an error.
    At any rate, the lyrics do seem to be references to rail lines & yards, and the Santa Fe Railway and seem to be variations on common lyrics and themes in Texas blues going back a few decades from Melvin Jackson’s recording:
    BTW, I was happy to stumble upon your page as I’ve been very intrigued by the song since I first heard it some months ago, and yours is the first reference I found to the original recording, as well as the first transcription of the lyrics. Thanks!

    Thanks, Dave! Sorry that your comment got lost. Loved reading up on Bessie Tucker, and the Katy and Santa Fe lines.

  7. I am researching this. I suspect the ‘Santa Fe’ may have franchised its locomotives to their drivers [‘engineers’] who then were responsible for their upkeep and contracts for freight work. Thus this driver had tow, nos. 81 and 82 – the former making a profit, that latter costing more in maintenance than it earned him [my source – the publisher – tells me the lyric should read ’82 puts me out of dough’] – and his problem is that the money maker is ‘in the yard’, maybe having an overhaul, or better, preparing a train. Just speculation, but if I find anything concrete I’ll follow this up. Paul

  8. Thank you, Paul! “Puts me out of dough” makes perfect sense. Please let me know if you find anything else, and good luck with your research!

  9. Hi Anne,

    I tracked down an expert on all things US Railroads, and he could not confirm my theory, as locomotives were owned by the companies and the engineers were employed, so he could not work out what the song refers to as the difference between numbers 81 and 82!

    He is also an expert on railroad related blues songs, and it turns out this was originally written and performed by Victoria Spivey, though Jackson altered a few of the lines, and it is his version Clapton recorded. You can listen to Spivey’s version – which sadly thrown no more light on verse 2 – at

    Best wishes, Paul

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