This week we are going to remember the life and times of America’s Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman, and the Father of Country Music: the late, great Jimmie Rodgers. On Saturday, May 26, Jimmie Rodgers will have been gone 79 years.
Arguably the most significant man in American music, he has heavily influenced country, blues, folk, jazz, Hawaiian, rock, pop, Americana, western swing, jazz, and bluegrass music. To celebrate the life and times of Jimmie Rodgers, I have been highlighting a Jimmie Rodgers’ song each day and showcasing a popular bluegrass version or two of each song.
Blue Yodel No 8 (Muleskinner Blues) – Jimmie Rodgers
Good morning captain
Good morning shine
Do you need another muleskinner
Out on your new mud line
I like to work
I’m rolling all the time
I can pop my initials
On a mule’s behind
Hey little water boy
Bring that water round
If you don’t like your job
Set that water bucket down
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
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
I smell your bread a-burning
Turn your damper down
If you ain’t got a damper, good gal
Turn your bread around
Now, this is the Jimmie Rodgers’ song all of the hard core bluegrassers (myself included) have been waiting for all week! Muleskinner Blues is as familiar to most of us as Foggy Mountain Breakdown or Uncle Pen. And it should be. Music historians point to Muleskinner Blues as the first bluegrass song.
Jimmie Rodgers wrote and recorded Blue Yodel No 8 (Muleskinner Blues) in 1930. It’s hard not to fall in love with it. Barry Mazor has the best summary of this song I’ve ever seen, and sheds some light as to why it has been so popular.
“Much could be done with the brazen, boastful aggression, the touch of working man’s contempt, and the good-natured cockiness in the original “Muleskinner Blues,” which was after all, a song about a freelance worker charged up to take on some extra work right now, suh, because he needs to rush home to his hot mama with cash and a bottle of booze!”
It’s such a fun song because it has so much going for it! Working, money, drinking, women… what more could you ask for!? Rodgers’ version is more laid back, and sounds as if he’s a good friend on your porch telling you about how exciting his life is. His loose style conveys a California-cool attitude which give this song its light-hearted feel.
The tune has received a new level of recognition ever since the 1940’s, when Bill Monroe revamped the song in his own style.
Muleskinner Blues was the first song he performed as a solo act on the Grand Ole Opry, following the breakup of The Monroe Brothers. The audience at the Ryman Auditiorium, and listening in on WSM 650 AM, knew that this young man from Rosine, KY still had plenty of music to make, even without his older brother, Charlie. Monroe’s rendition earned him the first ever Opry encore.
Monroe was a visionary, and this is the first prime example of his musical genius. People at this time would have been familiar with Jimmie’s original version. His life and legacy would have been fresh in their minds, so to redo a Rodgers song was a surefire way to have all eyes on you.
Monroe totally changed the style of this song, molding it to fit his new approach to string band music. That’s a mark of a true artist. I don’t know if any of you watched the American Idol finale this past week, but this idea is why Phillip Phillips walked away with the title. He was able to take songs, particularly his upcoming single Home, and make them Phillip Phillips songs. Rather than mold himself to fit the material, he mastered the material and molded it to him. Monroe was a master at this, and he applied it first to Jimmie’s Muleskinner Blues. The transformative style which turned people’s ears and has made them shut up and pay attention ever since, was bluegrass.
Since Monroe’s facelift of Muleskinner Blues, it has been recorded a number of times by those in and around bluegrass. Of late, one of the most notable recordings comes from Rhonda Vincent’s Ragin’ Live. She has been performing the song since she was a member of her family’s Sally Mountain Show. I have seen Rhonda Vincent & The Rage close countless shows with their interpretation of Muleskinner Blues. A fan favorite of hers, I was pleased to see she included a live version of it on her live album. The Queen of Bluegrass sings from the perspective of a lady muleskinner, having taken inspiration from Dolly Parton’s hit version. This is a great song to showcase not only Rhonda’s incredible vocal ability, but her great stage presence as well. She takes control of the stage and an audience as if she’s taking control of a mule! The hardest working woman in bluegrass, her strong will and powerful personality comes out in everything she does, so Muleskinner Blues fits her like a glove.
Another popular bluegrass version comes from Mr. Tony Rice. On the classic Cold On The Shoulder album, his version is a bit different than the standard Monroe rendition. Rice took inspiration from Jerry Reed’s overlooked cut of Muleskinner Blues. Jerry Reed, with special guest Chet Atkins, did a very bluesy edition of Blue Yodel No 8, another distinctive take on the song. If you get a chance to check out Reed’s version, you can clearly see where Rice drew his inspiration. I definitely recommend finding this rare track.
Rice referred to Reed’s recording more than Monroe’s because Reed’s singing style matched his voice better than Monroe’s, with that that sky-high tenor. The Tony Rice recording of Muleskinner Blues has been an inspiration to many. I’m glad that Rice found Reed’s version, because he knocks this song out of the park! Both his singing and guitar playing are superb, and his all-star cast of studio musicians make this a very memorable recording.
For those looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott does a really neat version of the song. I recommend his live version from the set of The Johnny Cash Show (found on the soundtrack to The Ballad Of Ramblin’ Jack). This performance features simply Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Norman Blake, and Randy Scruggs. It’s a bit different, and a bit more folky, but it is definitely worth checking out.
If you got a chance to listen to the radio tribute to Jimmie Rodgers today on my radio program, Bending The Strings, you heard all of the above versions and all of them bring something different to the table – a testament to Jimmie’s legacy.
I hope you enjoyed the Rodgers’ Remembrances this week. My Album of the Week for this coming week will by Merle Haggard’s tribute to Jimmie, Same Train, A Different Time. On the anniversary of the passing of Jimmie Rodgers, hopefully you can dig out some music by The Singing Brakeman and remember his impact on American culture.
If you would like to learn more about Jimmie Rodgers, I highly recommend the following three books: Meeting Jimmie Rodgers by Barry Mazor, Elsie McWilliams (I Remember Jimmie) by Edward Allen Bishop, and Waiting For A Train: Jimmie Rodgers’s America edited by Mary Davis and Warren Zanes.