Today, I eagerly present to you valued readers a record that stands out particularly in the annals of history (as well as in my collection), one of the unquestionably best of the one-hundred-and-some-odd songs recorded by America’s Blue Yodeler, Mr. Jimmie Rodgers: the very first recording of the classic country song “Mule Skinner Blues”.
Before delving into its history, I must digress to say that this record is something of a “holy grail” to me, it’s one I sought for a long, long time, and no tongue can tell the joy of finally having it in my grasp. I searched for what at least seemed like ages, until a nice copy finally appeared on eBay. I managed to win the auction, and after what seemed like an eternity, this one was delivered, albeit packed woefully inadequately. Thankfully, by what I can only describe as the grace of God, it made it into my possession safely in that thin LP mailer without the slightest damage—and boy is it a thing to behold.
Victor 23503 was recorded on the tenth and eleventh of July, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and released on February 6, 1931, in Victor’s 23500 series for “Old Familiar Tunes”. As designated by the small “o” above Nipper’s nose near the top of the labels, this copy was pressed at the Victor plant in Oakland, California. Several days later, while still in Hollywood, Jimmie recorded with Louis Armstrong, who was appearing at the time at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Los Angeles. Jimmie was in exceptionally fine form at these Hollywood sessions, and they turned out to be quite productive, resulting in a total of fourteen sides cut between thirtieth of June and the sixteenth of July—plus the unusual and unreleased test recording of an Amos ‘n’ Andy style comedy sketch with one I.N. Bronson, titled “The Pullman Porters”.
In the latter of the two sessions, after warming up with the railroad ballad “The Mystery of Number Five” (Victor 23518), Jimmie cut the eight installment in his series of thirteen “Blue Yodel” songs, “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)”, in only one take (though second and third takes were recorded, the first was released), with those being the only two sides he recorded that day. It was originally slated to be released as the ninth Blue Yodel song, with another being the eighth, but that recording was deemed inferior and held back until after Rodgers’ passing, at which time it was released as “Blue Yodel Number Eleven”.
Rodgers’ opening line, “Good mornin’, captain. Good mornin’, shine,” appeared two years earlier in Tom Dickson’s “Labor Blues” (Okeh 8570), though the rest of the song bears no resemblance to Rodgers’ Blue Yodel, lyrically or melodically. Whether Rodgers picked up the verse from Dickson’s song or elsewhere, I couldn’t say. This recording stands out as one of a relative few that Rodgers made during the later phase of his career to feature self-accompaniment on his own guitar (fewer than half of his recordings feature his own accompaniment, and the bulk of those were made prior to 1930), and his playing is at his finest, with a rare guitar solo midway through. The song was resurrected at the beginning of the next decade by Grand Ole Opry players Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff (separately), which in turn inspired many times subsequent covers. In 1955, Rodgers’ recording—along with a number of his other sides—was overdubbed with Hank Snow’s band and reissued in an effort to keep the music “up-to-date.” While remarkably tastefully executed, the re-do cut down Rodgers’ guitar solo significantly, supposedly because Chet Atkins—who led the band—could not figure it out. In later years, the song has been covered by numerous others in many different genres, such as the Fendermen’s rockabilly version.
In addition to being one of Jimmie’s most enduring songs, this number holds a special place in my heart as the song that introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers, and it has always been one of my favorites—if not my very favorite. I was first familiar with Dolly Parton’s 1970 recording, which was one of my favorites as a boy—when I first heard Jimmie yodeling it, boy, it was a whole other world! Not only did it spark my love for Rodgers’ music, but it was a major factor in starting me down the road of collecting 78 records. I could listen to it a million times and never tire.
On the “B” side, “Jimmie’s Mean Mama Blues”, recorded the previous day, Jimmie is accompanied by an outstandingly hot Hollywood-based five piece jazz band led by pianist Bob Sawyer, who co-wrote the tune with one Walter O’Neal. Another Rodgers classic, this tune was later covered by Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys in 1936, sung by Tommy Duncan. I love how the band stops playing during Jimmie’s first yodel, leaving just him and his guitar. We previously sampled Sawyer’s work with Carlyle Stevenson’s band five years prior to this.
Updated with improved audio on June 20, 2017, and on July 10, 2017, and May 31, 2019.