Terraplane Blues: first song to compare car problems with intimate relationship
1938 Hudson Terraplane with Mull
Terraplane Blues is the first single released by Robert Johnson—a traveling blues performer deeply revered by many rock musicians of the 1960s, although his surviving legacy is limited to only 29 songs recorded in two sessions in 1936 and 1937.
The song title refers to the powerful and inexpensive Terraplane cars produced during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the name of the brand itself points to the high public interest in aviation at the time.
The Terraplane Blues lyrics mention various car malfunctions as a metaphor for the fading relationship between the narrator and his girlfriend. It is believed that this poetic allegory by Robert Johnson has subsequently inspired a number of rock lyrics including The Beatles' Drive My Car and Led Zeppelin's Trampled Under Foot.
Listen to Terraplane Blues by Robert Johnson:
Compositionally, Terraplane Blues adheres to the typical harmonic standard of most blues songs of the time and is based on the three primary major chords of the Ionian mode. In the harmonic analysis of the song's chord chains, the scale degrees (denoted with Roman numerals) show the following progression in the key of F major: F–B♭–F–C–B♭–F or I–IV–I–V–IV–I. The exact same chord chain laid out in the key of C major is found in Statesboro Blues by Blind Willie McTell.
Judging by the slide guitar technique heard on Robert Johnson's recording, Terraplane Blues was originally performed in the key of E major—one of the most comfortable major keys for guitarists. The fact that the recording itself is very close to the key of F major can be explained by the higher guitar tuning or the faster playback speed.
Discover more songs composed in Ionian major mode and check out their harmonic analysis in the following articles:
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- 9 Beatles songs that combine harmonic major with Ionian mode
- Sugaree: Jerry Garcia's song referencing his lyricist's criminal past
- D'yer Mak'er: meaning of Led Zeppelin's most controversial song
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- Statesboro Blues: no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell
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- Coal Miner's Daughter was forced to remove a third of the lyrics from her autobiographical song
- I Wanna Be Sedated: pure classical harmony cementing the Ramones' hit in punk rock history
- Yakety Yak: teenager's answer to household chores in a hit song