mules in the blues

Mules have a long history of being mentioned in literature and music, going all the way back to the Bible and before. The animal is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey and is characterized as being very stubborn, but also intelligent. It is beast of burden known to be rebellious as well. In slavery days (and beyond) in the Old South mules were used to pull the plows that prepared the land for crops, usually cotton, and to haul heavy loads. They were also a primary means of transportation for African Americans then, either pulling wagons or acting as a poor man’s horse. A special bond developed between slaves and mules, a relationship which entered the black jive lexicon in many ways. It was common sense among these mule operators to never approach the animal from the rear. The “dangerous hind legs” of a mule became a powerful symbol in black slang and in blues music.

“Indeed, the blues singer adopted a phrase referring to ‘the dangerous hind legs of a mule’ when referring to another man making love to his wife or girlfriend. ‘Another mule kicking in your stall’ appeared most famously in a 1951 post-war recording Long Distance Call [Chess 1452] by Muddy Waters, but was already standard fare in many pre-war recordings,” wrote Max Haymes in an essay called “Mule, Get Up in the Alley” in the earlyblues.com blog. “While in 1930, a driving Birmingham jug band cut Kickin’ Mule Blues [OKeh 8866] with an unidentified raucous singer whose essentially single-liners give a definite pre-blues feeling to this performance.”

One of the most famous songs about mules ever written or performed was “Mule Skinner Blues,” originally recorded in 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers, who had grown up in a black neighborhood in Texas and started his career singing blues songs. Rodgers’ song was influenced by the 1928 recording of Tom Dickson’s “Labor Blues” in which the exchange is clearly between a white boss and an African-American worker (Dickson was black) who is quitting the job, not applying for it:

“It’s ‘good mornin’ Captain’, ‘e said ‘good mornin’ Shine’,

Said ‘good mornin’ Captain’, said ‘good mornin’ Shine’.

‘T’ain’t nuthin’ the matter, Captain, but I just ain’t gwine.

‘I don’t mind workin’, Captain, from sun to sun,

I don’t mind workin’, Captain, from sun to sun.

But I want my money, Captain, when pay-day come.”

The AAB blues lyric structure is apparent in the song while slang words “captain” (white boss man) and shine (African American person) were employed to lend a local flavor. Rodgers’ later version was renamed “Blue Yodel #8” and then became “Mule Skinner Blues” in the many re-recordings of the earthy ballad, which had nothing to do with skinning mules. Mule skinners in those days were simply people who knew how to handle the stubborn animals.

Black workers had a reputation of knowing how to communicate with mules, mainly since they were the persons handling them the most. “The mule acted in the role of a release valve for pent-up emotions concerning the way blacks were treated by the white man and his Jim Crow laws. Paul Oliver, whilst considering the lyrics of Go ‘Long Mule [Paramount 12247] by Ukele Bob Williams, rightly pointed out: ‘Travelers in the South and ex-slaves alike recollected that a black worker could sing comments about his master or boss to his mule, which he could not say to his boss’s face’,” wrote Haymes, quoting Oliver.

The braying of mules was the stuff of legend as the sound was so shrill and loud it could be heard for miles. Only screech owls were louder, some say. Superstitious bluesmen, many of whom followed the tenets of the black religion hoodoo (not to be confused with voodoo), weaved mule and donkey sounds into their music. “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey described a mule’s pitch in 1926: “If I could holler just like a mountain jack, I’d go up on the mountain, call my good man back.”

“Jack” was another word for an ass (donkey), so it follows that a slang name for a stupid and obnoxious loudmouth is “jackass.” On the other hand, mules were often praised in blues music. In a song called “The Death of Holmes’ Mule” Charley Turner and Winston Holmes describe a hoodoo ritual employed for the burial of the revered animal.

The great blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson, from Texas, put it interestingly: “The blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule.”

Jimmie Rodgers sings “Mule Skinner Blues”