Today I present a record that stands out particularly in the annals of history, one of the 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”.
I must say that this record is something of a “holy grail” to me, it’s one I sought for a long, long time, and words cannot describe the feeling 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 LP mailer without the slightest damage, and boy is it a thing to behold.
Jimmie Rodgers recorded these two sides in California, probably around the time he made his only appearance on film in the Columbia-Victor Gem The Singing Brakeman (which can be found on Yazoo’s home video Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be, a compilation of musical film clips from the 1920s and 1930s that I wholeheartedly recommend viewing). Also while in Hollywood, Jimmie recorded with Louis Armstrong, who was appearing at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in LA at the time.
Victor 23503 was recorded on July 10 and 11, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and issued in Victor’s 23500 series for “Old Familiar Tunes.” As designated by the small “o” above Nipper’s nose near the top of the label, this copy was pressed at the Victor plant in Oakland, California. Jimmie was in exceptionally fine form at these Hollywood sessions.
Recorded in the latter session, “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” is the song that introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers, and has always been one of my favorites—if not my very favorite—as well as one of Jimmie’s most enduring songs. Around 1940, the song was resurrected by Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff, and in 1955, this song, along with a number of other Rodgers sides, was overdubbed with Hank Snow’s band and reissued in an effort to keep the music “up-to-date.” 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.
I’d first heard Dolly Parton’s 1970 recording, which was one of my favorite songs as a boy, and when I first heard Jimmie yodeling it, boy, it was a whole other world! It not only sparked my love for Rodgers’ music, but 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 second side, “Jimmie’s Mean Mama Blues”, recorded the day before the first, 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. 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 on June 10, 2017, and with improved audio on June 20, 2017.