Deconstructing Mule Skinner Blues

Today is National Mule Appreciation Day. Believe it or not, I cooked up this post a few months ago and held it in reserve ’til now. Stubborn as a mule and crazy like a fox! By the way, Travalanche has gotten to be so all-encompassing this isn’t even my first mule related post. That honor went to this one on the vaudeville act Fink’s Mules. 

What put the bug in my ear for this one was I happened to be in a store and heard a snatch of a guitar solo I recognized being played on the P.A. After a good deal of effort I summoned it up in my memory: it was the Fendermen’s 1960 version of the old hillbilly classic “Mule Skinner Blues”. I knew this tune inside and out; I’d played the hell out of it as a kid on my K-Tel compilation record Goofy Greats. It is without a doubt the first rockabilly I ever heard. It’s a pretty astonishing track, not just in terms of some blazing musicianship, but also its no-holds-barred low-brow shit-kicker sense of humor, which makes Junior Samples sound like Gore Vidal. My dad grew up on a Tennessee farm in the 1930s where mules were the primary work animals. I’m sure he explained what little can be understood of the lyrics to me, for example that mule skinner is just a drover, a guy who drives the mules, not somebody who takes off their hides.

At any rate, since I’ve been in a folk music kind of place as a performer for the last three years (in The Iron Heel;, my wedding, at which I sang “Froggy Went a-Courtin'”; my Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison tribute; my show Tall Tales and now J.R. Brinkley) I got interested in running down the history of this song, and it proved to be quite a rabbit hole. You can kind of wring a history of America out of this one song and its many versions. I urge you to look many of these up on Youtube and play ’em!

Jimmie Rodgers wrote and recorded the original version and had a hit with it in 1930. It was originally known as “Blue Yodel #8” and drew at least partial inspiration from Tom Dickson’s 1928 work song record “Labor Blues”, although the latter song makes no mention of mules. Later, George Vaughn contributed to the song’s development and Rodgers recorded it again. Dickson’s original is of course a proper African American Delta style acoustic blues. Rodgers version cleans it up, makes it less raggedy, and of course adds country yodeling. It is a far cry from some of the later versions, though!

Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe recorded the tune in 1940. It sticks to Rodgers’ song structure but adds a full band including fiddle and mandolin to the foregrounded guitar. It would remain a staple of his repertoire over the rest of his career. Woody Guthrie recorded it in 1944, a bit slower with his patented cowboy feel. He is assisted on banjo and someone (maybe Cisco Houston?) is helping on harmonies.

Odetta’s 1956 version sounds downright operatic. British skiffle singer Lonnie Donnegan, a major influence on The Beatles, did one of the first electrified versions with a backbeat, getting close to rock ‘n’ roll but still mighty country-sounding. Greenwich Village folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott did a fairly traditional version in ’58, along with his trademark spoken intro, harmonica playing, and yodeling. Elliott was a major influence on Bob Dylan, who did the song in ’62 in the straightforward, traditional way (he yodels, too, or his own version of yodeling, anyway). Like his hero Elliott, Dylan of course played harmonica on it.

Joe D. Gibson’s 1957 version “Good Morning, Captain” is where it turns the corner into what we recognize as the song the Fendermen performed. It was Gibson who first rearranged the tune to accommodate the familiar vocalizations that fill out the end of each line of a verse, all the “hee hees” and “huh huhs” and hiccups. The Fenderman basically took his version, made it cook even more and had a #5 hit on the pop charts with it. This despite the fact they were a duo from Madison, Wisconsin and had probably never seen a mule in their lives. Comical Canadian country singer Stompin’ Tom Connors did his own take on the Fenderman’s version in 1971. The film clip of him in live performance on Youtube is hilarious and appalling, a self-indulgent orgy of funny faces, woops, yodels, and all with a Canadian accent!!

That said, maybe the most amazing version of all happens to have been released by Dolly Parton in 1970. Hers hearkens back to the traditional Jimmy Rodgers/ Bill Monroe style with a full modern country band, and her vocals — man — put a chill right up my spine every time I listen to it.  Her thrilling vocal performance is undoubtedly why this tune went to #3 of the country charts that year.

The other major version I wanna plug is the Cramps’ barn-burnin’ 1989 punkabilly take, which somehow manages to make a song about getting a job driving mules on a farm sound EVIL and SATANIC. The solo is almost note for note the same as the Fendermen’s, but every other element is much harder.

Others who covered the tune over the years: Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, Jose Feliciano, The Brothers Four, the Wildwood Boys (a precursor to the Grateful Dead), Merle Haggard, Jerry Reed (with Chet Atkins), Don McLean, and Van Morrison. Who will do it next? Who will reinvent it? I was about to proclaim that this song would be resistant to techno, but I quickly realized that that canard too can be quickly demolished with a single word: Devo.

Happy National Mule Appreciation Day!