Phantom 309 is a trucking ghost song, a 1967 country hit for Red Sovine (right), but written by North Carolina singer-songwriter Tommy Faile. It's about a hitchhiker who's picked up at night by a big-hearted guy called Big Joe in his semi, The Phantom 309. After he's abruptly dropped off at a truckstop, the hitchhiker finds out that Big Joe and The Phantom are both, well, phantoms.
It's more a recitation than a song, a narrative poem with an oldtime country backing: a foot-tapping rhythm, punctuated by guitar licks and some wistful fiddling.
I got to know it through Tom Waits's version (he uses its full title, Big Joe And Phantom 309) on his 1975 live album, Nighthawks at the Diner. Being Tom Waits, he tells it in that half-sleepy barkeep's voice, over an after-midnight jazz backing, and he takes his time: around 6½ minutes, compared with Red Sovine's under 3½. Tom Waits here is leisurely and conversational, savouring the story in that world-weary, regretful way he has.
Going back later and hearing Red Sovine's original recording is a revelation. The first surprise is how brisk it is, almost perky by comparison with Tom Waits's smokey nightclub feel (his album's title presumably refers to another late night scene, Edward Hopper's 1942 painting Nighthawks) .
Red Sovine gets in and tells the story in a straightforward and businesslike way, without much emotional display, letting the words speak for themselves. Where Tom Waits has a conversation with the audience, you can hear the rhyming couplets in Red Sovine's version, much as you would with a traditional bush balladeer.
Here's the part where the hitchhiker first mentions Big Joe in the truckstop, when he tries to buy a cup of coffee with a dime from Big Joe:
Well, I went inside and ordered me a cup
Told the waiter Big Joe was settin' me up
Oh, you coulda heard a pin drop, it got deathly quiet
And the waiter's face turned kinda white
Well, did I say something wrong?
I said with a halfway grin
So I walked into this stop
Well I ordered me up a cup of mud
Sayin' Big Joe's settin' this dude up
It got so deathly quiet in that place,
Yeah, it got so deathly quiet in that place
That you coulda heard a pin drop
And as the waiter's face turned kinda pale
I said, whassamatter, did I say somethin' wrong?
I kinda said with a halfway grin...
Sovine more or less states the last two lines: with Waits you can hear the sheepish grin in his voice as he looks around the diner.
On the page, too, you can see how Waits's embellishments and repetitions draw the tale out, and the way he plays with the structure of the lines in favour of a more conversational feel.
See how Waits adds repetition for dramatic effect in the closing lines:
Here, have another cup
And forget about the dime
Keep it as a souvenir
From Big Joe and Phantom 309
So here son, he said to me...
You get yourself another cup of coffee
It's..'s'on the house..
I kinda want you to hang on to that dime...
Yeah I kinda want you to hang on to that dime as a souvenir...(yeahmmm)...
I want you to keep that dime as a souvenir of Big Joe...
Of Big Joe and Phantommm...
Big Joe and Phantom 309.
You have to hear it, of course, to get the full impact: you can hear the hitchhiker's awe at the story, and Waits's awareness of the impact of the story on his audience.
When I first heard Tom Waits's version I was vaguely aware of the original, and I naturally suspected irony, but I don't think this is tongue-in-cheek, and I believe that Waits is sincere about the song.
Is it an improvement on the original? Waits has reimagined the song, seen further possibilities in it, and I prefer his version, but I can't say how I would have felt if I'd already been a fan of the original.
I can imagine that some fans of manly, forthright country style might think Tom Waits is making too much of an entertaining song, but for me he has turned it into a masterpiece.