Muleskinner Blues (also known as Blue Yodel #8) is a traditional Appalachian mountain song, originally set to music by Jimmie Rodgers and recorded by him on July 11, 1930 for RCA/Victor (thus the lyrics are public domain). The song is considered to be the highlight of Rodgers' "Blue Yodeler" period, in which he was incorporating yodeling into his development of the fundamental sounds of bluegrass.
In later years, the song was recorded by Woody Guthrie (in 1944 for Asch Recordings), Bill Monroe (several times, most notably in 1946), and Dolly Parton (in 1970 at the peak of her early bluegrass phase).
This song is one of the earliest examples of true bluegrass in extant recorded music. In its earliest 1930 incarnation, the song features many of the fundamental bluegrass elements, most notably a well-picked banjo. Later versions include a folk interpretation (Guthrie), as well as two recordings showing two different stages in the development of the bluegrass sound: Bill Monroe's 1946 recording, along with Blue Moon of Kentucky, is considered to be the root of modern bluegrass, and Dolly Parton's 1970 version demonstrates a similar sound with better recording techniques.
Well it's good morning captain
Good morning shine
Do you need another muleskinner
Out on your new mud line
This song is quite simple to play on an acoustic guitar, as with many Jimmie Rodgers numbers. It works best with a single guitar and a single banjo, particularly if the two players are strong at interacting with one another (as on the Guthrie recording, in which Guthrie plays the guitar and Pete Seeger plays the banjo).
However, the song can stand alone with either instrument. The Jimmie Rodgers version features only a banjo played by Rodgers and it effectively carries the song forward.
I like to work
I'm rolling all the time
I can pop my initials
On a mule's behind
The title of this song, Muleskinner Blues, is a bit misleading, as it is not really much of a blues number. It's definitely better described as folk or bluegrass, as it was written for the banjo and uses a very simple structure that people could quickly pick up on, in the true tradition of both folk and bluegrass.
Yet the song lyrically expresses many of the issues that blues music deals with. It deals with desperation in terms of finding work, hard labor, and love.
Hey little water boy
Bring that water round
If you don't like your job
Set that water bucket down
I first heard this song at my grandfather's house, hearing both the Guthrie and the Rodgers recordings of the song the same day. We spent a rainy afternoon together playing records on his old phonograph and it caused me to develop a deep love for folk and bluegrass music, largely spurred by a small handful of the songs, of which this is one.
When I hear Muleskinner Blues, I go back to another place and time to when my grandpa was teaching me to play the banjo. I only clearly remember him from the last few years of his life, but there was a clear deep love for music inside of him and a spark of excitement in his eye when he took a banjo into his hands. I can feel that love and excitement every time I hear this song.
Workin' on the good road
Dollar and a half a day
My good girl's waiting on a Saturday night
Just to draw my pay
The most accessible version to the average listener is probably the Woody Guthrie recording, easily available on the Folkways recordings that the Smithsonian has recently made available. It can be found on The Asch Recordings, Vol. 2 by Woody Guthrie, which is widely available in the folk section of most music stores.
The other versions are also good, especially the Bill Monroe version; the Jimmie Rodgers original suffers from the same problems that many pre-1930s recordings have in that they were recorded on poor equipment and are suffering the effects of age. The other versions, however, more directly demonstrate the bluegrass feel of the number.
I'm going to town, honey
What you want me to bring you back?
Bring a pint of booze
And a John B Stetson hat
The song is about the hard life of a mule skinner; what possible impact can it have in terms of commentary on contemporary life? Isn't this song just a relic from a time long lost?
The song focuses directly on the value of skilled labor and the life of that laborer. In modern times, the value of skilled labor is higher than ever; most of us are employed in jobs that are best described as skilled labor. Computer programmers, technical writers, court reporters; these are all examples of jobs that are in essence skilled labor.
When the song mentions I can pop my initials / on a mule's behind, the singer is merely promoting their skill at mule skinning, much similar to the process of sending out resumes today. The singer is merely trying to get hired on to skin mules.
Eventually, the singer gets the job and has significant pride in his work, chastizing others for not holding up their end of the bargain, much as we do when complaining about slackers in the workplace.
But why is the singer working at this job? Simply to raise money to have fun with his girlfriend on the weekends and to lead a simple life. He plans to spend the upcoming weekend with his lady, having a great time. He gets dressed up in his Stetson hat and heads to town after a week's work.
The song is in its essence timeless, commenting on the value of skilled work and the joy of well-earned pay.
I smell your bread a-burning
Turn your damper down
If you ain't got a damper, good gal
Turn your bread around
Sometimes, we all have the muleskinner blues.