The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Way Down Below: Terraplane Blues

Several times during his life, I heard my Dad speak of a car that a young man in his small town owned back in the '30s. He described it with awe, as a special kind of powerful machine. It was called a Terraplane and was manufactured by the Hudson car company.

When I looked it up back in the day, I found Hudson had also manufactured a companion line called Essex through the '20s and early '30s, and the first Terraplanes in '32 - '33 bore this designation as well.

In my opinion, those from '36, 37, and '38 were on the ugly side, with bulbous bodies and ungainly looking grilles and fenders. But those from '32, '33, '34, and '35 were very nicely styled, with proportioned hoods and graceful flowing fender lines.

And like Dad remembered, Terraplanes were powerful and fast. Wiki says,
1933 Essex-Terraplane 8-cylinder cars were believed to have the highest horsepower-to-weight ratio of any production automobiles in the world, and were favored by several gangsters of the day, particularly John DillingerBaby Face Nelson, and John Paul Chase, for their lightness, acceleration, handling, and discreet appearance.
The opening hood vent doors (instead of louvers) indicate that the beautiful '33 coupe below had the powerful straight eight, but most of them came with six cylinder engines. They were also very fast.

Their speed, light weight, and strength (all steel frame) made them legendary. If you were interested in fast cars, you knew about Hudson Terraplanes. Thus, these beautiful cars became a part of popular culture, including music.

Especially Blues music. Robert Johnson had obviously heard about these fast cars and he wrote a song about them, "Terraplane Blues." Well, not exactly about the car. You see, the song's ostensibly about a car, but it's also about a woman. The comparison between the two is extended over the whole song. In fancy literary parlance, this is called a conceit, or an extended metaphor. Back in the late '70s, early '80s I used to use this song as an example of that figure of speech in class sometimes.

Johnson sets up everything right away. He says, "Who's been driving my Terraplane for you since I been gone?" The woman is his "Terraplane" and somebody's been driving her since he's been away. he can tell somebody's been messin' round with his car (woman) because he flashes her lights and finds her horn won't even blow. He says there must be a short in her connection "way way down below."

Yup, something's definitely wrong, so he needs to "heist her hood" and check....Well, you get the picture.

The version of Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" I used in class was on a compilation vinyl album I bought in the bargain bin back in the late '70s, and the singer was bluesman Son House. That version isn't available on youtube but you can easily find the original by Johnson in their vast holdings.

And there's this version, by Roy Rogers.

Whoa Trigger!


  1. In fancy literary parlance, this is called a conceit, or an extended metaphor.

    I learn sumthin' EVERY day!

    I love Mr. Rogers, what with owning three or four of his albums; his take on "Terraplane" is most definitely a tour de force. That said, he's one whole hella lot better picker than singer.

    John Lee Hooker does a pretty good version, too.

  2. I forgot part o' what I was gonna say...

    My Ol' Man was a big Hudson fan; he owned several Wasps and Hornets, which he drove waaaay too damned fast. I remember my Mom constantly haranguing him to "Slow DOWN, Buck!"

    History had a way of repeating itself where I'm concerned, as well. It's a wonder I made it to old age.