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.
Victor 23503 was recorded on July 10 and 11, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and issued 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 label, 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 at the time appearing 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.
In the latter of the two sessions, Jimmie cut his renowned “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” in only one take, just after recording his railroad tune “The Mystery of Number Five” (Victor 23518), the only two sides he recorded that day. 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.
Around 1940, the song was resurrected by Grand Ole Opry players Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff (separately), and many times subsequently. 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.”
This was 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. 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.