Friday, 12 February 2016

Muleskinners Blues

From Jimmie Rodgers To Van Morrison  

Mule Skinner Blues is a classic country song written by Jimmie Rodgers and George Vaughan and first recorded by Rodgers in 1930. The original title was Blue Yodel #8"George Vaughn", a pseudonym for George Vaughn Horton, is sometimes listed as co-author. Horton wrote the lyrics for New Mule Skinner Blues, Bill Monroe's second recorded version of the song.
The song tells the tale of a down-on-his-luck mule skinner, approaching "the Captain", looking for work ("Good Morning, Captain/Good Morning to you, son. / Do you need another muleskinner on your new mud line?"). He boasts of his skills: "I can pop my 'nitials on a mule's behind" and hopes for "a dollar and a half a day". He directs the water boy to "bring some water round". The term "skinning a mule" means to outwit a mule, and has nothing to do with removing the animal's hide.

Mule Skinner Blues has been performed by numerous artists including Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and Bill Monroe, but also a few that might surprise you, such as Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Van Morrison. But although it’s been a popular piece for years, it wasn’t until The Fendermen came along that it hit real pay dirt. That was around 1960, when the song became the one and only top-ten hit for the duo of closely-matched guitarists, Jim Sundquist and Phil Humphries.

The two had gotten acquainted as teenagers because of their shared enthusiasm for early rock and roll, along with their love of Fender electric guitars. When they later discovered that they’d been born on the same day, it seemed to be a sign. They decided to begin performing together professionally as the Fendermen, naming themselves after their favourite instrument. They started playing in honky-tonks whenever possible and had mixed success, but began to notice that the crowd loved their rockabilly version of “Mule Skinner Blues,” which included a lot of incandescent guitar play accompanied by some laughing yodels.
A local promoter caught the act and managed to get the guys matched up with a small record company. The song took off and hit the national charts, and the Fendermen were on their way. They added a drummer and went on the road, managing to make a pretty good living for a while.

Eventually they got back to the studio and recorded enough additional songs to fill an album, but none really caught the ear of the listening public. After just two years, the Fendermen were no more and the guys went their separate ways — but are still remembered by some of us for their outrageously enjoyable signature song.

Van has played the song numerous times in concert and even recorded a version of it for the 1997 Jimmie Rodgers tribute album called The Songs of Jimmie Rogers: a Tribute.  The incredible Vanomatic website by Gunter Becker notes that Van played the song 115 times during the period October, 1995 to April, 2007.  

The People's Opinion

katlaughing   -  When my great-uncle was a mule skinner it meant he drove a team of mules hauling ore in the Colorado Rockies. That's the only definition I've ever heard.

Sorcha   -   I don't know why "skinner", but it is a mule team driver, or drover. In the Great Basin (US) long teams of mules were used to haul borax from the mines to the railroads. Up to 10 pairs of mules on one wagon.

Katlaughing   -   The term muleskinner means someone who can "skin" or outsmart/train a mule.

Bobbi   -   A mule skinner was an individual that travelled the 'Old West' and slaughtered buffalo... taking hides only, for cash and barter at trading posts. The owner of these trading posts were respectfully addressed as Capt'n (if you wanted a respectable price for your hides)... "Good mornin' Capt'n, good mornin' to you!..." They drove mule teams as the mules could bear the weighty load of all the hides they collected and the heavy wagons they pulled... Unfortunately, they left the meat to rot on the plains, and while the buffalo herds were diminished, the native Americans starved. A mule skinner didn't have a very honourable standing in the community.

Bobbi   -   Mule skinners travelled the hot barren plains in groups of wagon teams.. It would hardly be worth it to take one wagon out in hostile Indian territory and only hope for one load of hides... An important member of that wagon team was the water boy... After the buffalo slaughter, skinners were busy all day, getting the hides off their kill, and the water boy would run a bucket of water between the skinners so they wouldn't dehydrate and also to rinse their hands from the sticky, slicky blood and hides. Mule skinners didn't smell pleasant.. It was a nasty, gross job, that eventually wiped out a nation, but is was lucrative.

Dicho   -   Captain was a term commonly used for the boss, or other person of importance. The buffalo slaughterers used muleskinners, but much more importantly, merchants who organised supply trains and trading parties, the mining camp merchants and miners and anyone involved in haulage of all kinds. Mule teams were faster than oxen and are very smart in picking their way through rough bits where mis-steps could mean a broken leg. A good mule team and skinner could get work when others used the pick or begged. As an employee or self-employed, the muleskinners were important in the development of the west and anywhere else where railroads,rivers and canals were lacking.

Sorcha   -   Mules are smarter than horses and can haul heavier loads but you have to treat them right. Mules "know" how much they can haul and will refuse to haul more than that. All the whipping in the world will not get a mule to haul a load too heavy. Hence, stubborn as a mule. Mules also do not need as much water or feed as horses so they were preferred as draft animals. 

Amos   -   The same candidate states he can "pop his initials down on a mule's behind". I believe long trains of mules in team were used, and a long-lashed whip was used to supplement the emphasis of traces and reins. Not as punishment which as anyone who has ridden a mule knows is directly counterproductive. More as incentive. You pop the tip of the long lash just offside their head and they pull off in the opposite direction. The term skinner, I have always believed, meant someone who could manage mules, but derives from the concept that one could pop the whip artfully enough to flay them, not that one would.

Amos   -   The Mule skinner was a professional individual sometimes called a teamster whose sole purpose was to keep his wagon pulled by mules, under control and moving. The mule skinner actually rode one of the mules and guided the entire team with a single rein which was called a jerk line. An experienced mule skinner knew the personality of every one of his mules and could make them into a magical running machine whereas an inexperienced teamster found them to be obstinate and stubborn

Speed was of essential importance out in the west and the mules could pull wagons at 2 miles per hour. A team of oxen usually pulled at about 2 1/2 miles per hour. General stores would specify mule teams to carry their freight of food and other perishable items. The draw back to mules were that their grain had to be hauled with them, the Indians would steal mules to ride them and mule meat tasted terrible according to the teamsters.

Jody Gibson   -   Before May of 1957, The only way anyone sang Muleskinner Blues was the way Jimmy Rogers or Bill Monroe sang it. Then in May 1957 The Control Tower Chief Controller at Suffolk County Air Force Base, T/Sgt Jody Gibson (me) recorded Good Morning Captain an entirely different way of singing this song, and with an entirely different melody. It was an instant "Hit". Only distributed in New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it sold 400,000 + 45rpm records and 75,000 78 rpms. 

One of the reasons for it's success is that Alan Freed was my manager's father in law so it got a lot of play on the AM pop and rock and roll radio programs. It was instantly covered by Sheb Wooley, who sang it "word for word and note for note" exactly the same as I'd done it. Dolly Parton also recorded my version years later. Now, this is the way all the "Traditionalist" and "Folk Music Purists" (folk music fascists?) sing it. That is, until they read this post, then they'll be frantically searching for old Jimmy Rogers records.

Metchosin   -   A mule seems to have a greater sense of self preservation than a horse, therefore it requires more finesse to bend their will or rather assure it enough, that it should do man's bidding. Or maybe it is just simply that they are, in fact, smarter than horses. Can't see what could be more straight forward than that, but then again, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

Arkie   -   The purpose of the whip was not to beat the mule team or to cause them to pull harder to avoid the pain of the whip. The crack of the whip was the critical part. The driver might lightly touch an animal with the whip, or pop the whip above their ears. He prided himself upon his delicate use of the whip. As has already been stated here the term "skinner" was not applied literally. A team of mules was far too costly to have a driver that raked their backs with a whip causing gashes and open sores that would get infected or draw flies.   Anyone who caused any harm or damage to a mule in the team would likely discover just how much damage a bull whip could do when applied directly to the flesh.

anonymous   -   You won't find any good mule skinner without a whip. Many times, he'd have a cat o' nine tails hanging by a thong on his wrist. Whips work. That's why they have songs about the prowess of skinners with their whips. How can you doubt it? A good mule skinner could whip a mule to death in less than half an hour. Of course, that would be foolish. But he did raise a bit of blood now and then getting a balky mule to get with the program.

Put yourself in the mule skinner's place. You are given X amount of time per trip. If the mule refuses to move, you lose your job. There is no time to train, cajole, or pamper the mule. It moves, or you and your family go hungry. You start off by popping it around his tail. Then his ears. Then you drag it across his back slowly. 

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