Mule Skinner: A Job Much Less Gross Than It Sounds
Are you ready to hear the good news about Dolly Parton?
A couple of months ago, I wrote a bunch about Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” and the way it’s turned into kind of a standard that different guitarists like to take out for a spin to show what it looks like with their sensibility attached to it. There are a lot of songs like that in every genre! And today I want to talk about one of my favorite of those cases, “Mule Skinner Blues.” It’s nuts how many people have taken this song to strange, awesome places. I *guarantee* that no matter what your listening preferences are, there’s a version of this song that’ll make you pump your fists.
But before we get into the song, let’s be clear: no mules are actually skinned. The worst thing that actually happens to mules in this song is that they have to do some mule work. “Mule skinner” is, for some reason, olde-tymey slang for the person who steers a mule wagon.
My intro to the song, and the one most people are most likely to have heard, is the 1960 proto-rock version by the Fendermen, which I can only describe as “two men with electric guitars and a primitive recording setup go completely insane in an extremely entertaining manner.” I mean, check it out:
Why line dancing footage? Your guess is as good as mine.
This version gets trotted out a lot on silly song compilations (I think I first heard it on an old record my wife had called “Goofy Greats.” And I guess it’s goofy, but it’s goofy in an absolutely glorious, kick-ass way. It’s the kind of raw musical energy people love Bo Diddley for (one important difference: Bo only needs one guitar to kick this much ass). I have a particular love for electric guitar music that comes from before a consensus had solidified about what an electric guitar should sound like; this is a great example of that. The Fendermen are so raw that they’re playing two guitars plugged into the same amp, which is normally the kind of thing you do if you’re 14 and jamming with your friends in the basement.
It was a monster hit in 1960! Big enough to have spawned a Batman-themed takeoff during the era of the Adam West Batman TV show!
So anyway, for a long time this was a song that I liked a lot, but just thought of as an interesting novelty. I figured it was just some old song that a couple of Wisconsin guys had gotten their hands on and done wild stuff to. Which I guess is the case, in the abstract, but the actual details and associated story turn out to be pretty damned interesting.
It turns out that “Mule Skinner Blues” was originally done by Jimmie Rodgers, the “singing brakeman” who was country music’s first superstar. Jimmie Rodgers was pretty goddamned how hardcore. How hardcore, you ask? Rodgers was dying of tuberculosis the entire time he was a star, and recorded a song about it, and the song’s an absolute jam (at least if your concept of “absolute jam” includes cowboy yodeling, like mine).
Rodgers’ version of “Mule Skinner Blues” isn’t on his top shelf of stuff (FWIW, the absolute top shelf is “In the Jailhouse Now”), but I like that the song is a link back to him. Most roads in 20th century American music lead back to Jimmie Rodgers eventually, and that makes him worth knowing about (if nothing else, putting on a couple of Jimmie Rodgers songs is the best way to make your boring, ordinary day suddenly feel like a Coen Brothers movie).
Like I said, Rodgers was the first superstar in country music; the list of people who list him as an influence is essentially endless. He recorded his version of “Mule Skinner Blues” in 1930 and it wasn’t long before everybody was taking a crack at it. The list of people who’ve recorded their own version is huge: Bill Monroe, the creator of Bluegrass music; Woody Guthrie; Odetta; Harry Belafonte; Bob Dylan; Jose Feliciano; Merle Haggard; Jerry Reed; the Cramps; and (sigh) Van Morrison. And lots of others. I’m not going to link to them all, but they’re pretty much all available on YouTube, and you should dig around!
About which: I do a music podcast with my friend Chad, called We’ve Been Had, and one of the things we—as guys in our 40s—marvel about a lot is how different the world of music discovery is now from when we were growing up. It used to be that finding alternate versions of a song would mean going to record stores and scouring bins in the hopes of a lucky find; now it means opening a new tab and copy-pasting a search term. It’s unreal.
Some of those are good, a few are great, a lot are just kind of there, but there’s one version that elbow-jockeys with the Fendermen’s and Rodgers’ original as the definitive take, and that’s Dolly fucking Parton’s. if you haven’t heard this yet, you need to stop a second and check this shit OUT:
Parton’s version was recorded as she was in the process of establishing herself as a solo country artist and not just a part of the entourage of Porter Wagoner, a country star from half a generation before her who I can best describe as “a lecherous singing corpse wearing a lot of rhinestones:”
Porter Wagoner was a controlling creep, but he was also a hell of a record producer. Part of the psychodrama as he allowed Parton to set out on her own involved his insistence that he produce her first solo album, and he did a hell of a job at it. The backing band has a great, crackling energy; the guitars jangle out an invitation to get up off your ass and start dancing RIGHT NOW; Parton’s voice jumps right out of the speakers, especially when the yodelling parts get drenched with harmony and reverb; and there’s a bullwhip cracking in the background, which improves any song.
Parton’s amazingly clear voice gives you the best chance to appreciate the words, which are simple but kind of awesomely pro-labor: a guy asks for a job as a mule skinner, brags about how good he is at it and then tells a waterboy that he should throw his bucket down and quit (now that I think about it, I guess it’s no surprise that a song about a mule skinner would be pro-labor… “teamster” originally meant basically the same thing as “mule skinner,” just not as animal-specific). Parton being a world-class songwriter as well as a great singer, she also adds her own verse about being tired of working at a greasy spoon café and deciding that she wants to find a better line of work. Her ad-libbed “and I’m sick of it, I wanna be a mule skinner” is one of my favorite vocal deliveries in music.
To step away from the song (to throw my bucket down like the little waterboy!) for a second: listening to Parton’s version of “Mule Skinner” led to a bigger appreciation of the musical phenomenon of Dolly Parton (this was also alongside my wife and I working our way through the podcast Dolly Parton’s America while doing art and working on puzzles, and that podcast is highly recommended: it’s about 9 hours of interviews with Parton and in-depth investigation of her work, including a music professor arguing convincingly that there should be an additional verse to “Jolene” about the narrator and Jolene running off together). Giving her work a serious listen and learning more about her career, I’m convinced that she’s been operating up on the Prince tier of superlative multifaceted musical genius for over half a century. Her voice as a raw instrument is up there with Emmylou Harris’s. Her songwriting abilities are off the charts—she famously wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day. She’s sneakily very good at playing a lot of instruments—Porter Wagoner could never master her guitar part to “Jolene”—and somehow manages to do that with superlong acrylic nails. It’s nuts. I can’t play the “Jolene” riff even with plain old fingers.
The more I write about it, the more I think that there’s an important conversation to be had about how underappreciated Dolly Parton is as a serious musician, and the weird way that she herself has fueled some of that underappreciation (and then the very understandable contextual reasons that she would have done so… see, it’s a huge, fascinating conversation). But doing that justice would take its own newsletter issue, so maybe that’s what’ll happen some time down the line.
In the meantime, go find a version of Mule Skinner Blues that you like, and shake your ass a little. If you have a bullwhip handy, give it a few cracks, too.
Right on. Stay safe.
I don’t want this newsletter to be all self-promotion, but every now and then there’s some word that I want to get out and this seems to be the best way.
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OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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