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John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



Mule, Get Up In The Alley
(a Tribute to the Mule in the Blues)
Max Haymes

The 'lowly' mule is a ubiquitous icon in the early blues and reaches back into slavery times.  This animal appears in many blues [ Footnote 1: The mule also appears in many old timey/hillbilly  recordings in the same era; Fiddlin’ John Carson and Cedar Creek  Sheik  among them. ]  such as those by Coley Jones, Kokomo Arnold, Memphis Minnie, Billiken Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jazz Gillum, Texas Alexander, Julius Daniels, and Edna Winston. [ Footnote 2: See I Need-A Plenty Grease In My Frying Pan ( influences between rural and  vaudeville  blues ) 4-CD set on JSP Records, for  the Edna Winston  recording. ]  Also, many recordings made for the Library of Congress (LoC)  feature the mule. By contrast, I have not come across a single reference in the canon of the early gospel/sacred record to this animal. The closest link is the story of the jaw bone of an ass from the Old Testament (Judges. 14.1-16.1) which appears in several gospel numbers including famously If I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down [Columbia 14343-D] by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927.

In the mid-1870s the Rev. J.G. Wood - an avid purveyor of natural history - as well as a preacher of the Jewish faith, noted (with some surprise?) that “There are several references to the MULE in  the Holy Scriptures, but it is remarkable that the animal is not mentioned at all until the time of David, and that in the New Testament the name does not occur at all.” (1)  

The main aim of this article is to highlight the importance of the mule and its relevance to the Blues singer.  In his apparently unique tome (over 700 pages) Scripture Natural History Illustrated, Wood goes some way to answering his question, unintentionally!  Part of which lies in his statement that “the mixed breed between the horse and the ass has been employed in many countries from very ancient times is a familiar fact”. (2) Although admitting that the origin of the mule remains unknown, Rev. Wood sees the ass, in its original state, as part of the reason for the mule’s temperament. This refers to the wild ass as opposed to the domesticated animal.

While many working-class blacks in the South, around the earlier 20th. Century, might have seen much to admire in the attributes of the domesticated ass who had been superseded by the mule since biblical times (see 2 Samuel.13.29; 18.9. 1 Kings 1.33; 38; 44.) according to Wood; the Blues singer would more likely identify with the rebellious and essentially free wild ass.  The irony of the fact that the mule in the American South (apparently not known to Rev. Wood) is normally depicted as a beast of burden, but remains ‘free’ and rebellious, is much appreciated in the Blues; ‘stubborn as mule’ being in widespread usage in the English-speaking world. Texas bluesman Billiken Johnson who did not feature an instrument on his records, employed an ‘insane’ wickedly accurate impersonation of a jack (the male) braying.  Together with his stentorian vocal [ Footnote 3: Despite B.&G.R. listing Neal Roberts as the singer on both sides of Columbia 14405, I maintain that on Wild Jack Blues it is Johnson himself on his only recorded vocal. ] and tight slow-boogie piano accompaniment by Neal Roberts, this makes Wild Jack Blues [Columbia 14405] a truly unique ode to the mule; in the annals of the Blues.

View of slave quarters as seen from black roustabouts on the river. 1853.
The lone mule has centre stage.

1. My jack on the mountain an’
‘e brays the whole day long;
(mule imitations)

My jack’s on the mountain
an’ ‘e brays the whole day long.
 Gonna buy me some lumber,
build that old jack a home.

Mules in the East c. 1877


I’m goin’ to build a stable as
long as he is tall;
         (mule imitations)
Gonna build me a stable as long
as he is tall.
So I can hear my wild jack
every time he call.

3. You ough-ta see that big black
jack of mine;
         (mule imitations)
Oughta see that big black jack
of  mine.
He eat more corn than I feel
like dryin’. (3)

There then follows a ‘braying solo’ with some relevant spoken asides.

Spoken: That long-haired jack.
         (mule imitations)
Just hear ‘im bray.
         (mule imitations)  (4)

The almost reverential attitude depicted by Billiken Johnson was apparently widespread in rural black communities across the South in the early 20th. Century.  “Blacks knew their mules so well that whites often felt they had a special gift to read the mule’s thoughts” .(5)  In the case of a sharecropper from Alabama, ‘Nate Shaw’ (real name Ned Cobb) born 1886, he told his biographer that “Them mules aint goin to eat no more than they want.  Just give em a good feed, plenty … Feed em three times a day just like I et - them animals, my mules or my horses, I considered the next things to my family.” [sic] (6)  Yet generally speaking a mule only did what she/he wanted to do.  Like the camel, the jack and jennet [Footnote 4: Male and female mule. ‘Jennet’ was usually abbreviated to ‘jenny’.  See its use in a verse by Big Bill Broonzy in 1941 on his Feel So Good. The term   seems to be derived from a name for “A  small Spanish horse”. (7) ]  knew the limitations of the weight they would carry.  Very intelligent animals and rated by famous Mississippi writer, William Faulkner, “… second only to rats in intelligence …The mule I rate second.  But second only because you can make him work for you”. (8)  This stubborn streak (more later) is reflected on by Julius Daniels from South Carolina, in 1927.

  I told that mule, the mule wouldn’t gee this mornin’;
Told that mule, the mule wouldn’t gee this mornin’.
I told that mule, the mule wouldn’t gee.
I hit ‘im in the head with a single tree.
This mornin’, got too soon for me.
  Ah! This mule keep a-cuttin’ this fool, this mornin’;
This old mule keep a-cuttin’ this fool, this mornin’.
Oh! This mule keep a-cuttin’ this fool;
I can’t put a bridle on this old mule.
This mornin’, got too soon for me.


c. 1877 - complete with biblical quote from the Book of  Proverbs in the Old Testament: ‘A bridle for the ass’.

The command ‘gee’ to a mule , horse or ox, meant generally “to turn to the right”. (10)  Partridge noted that it was a colloquial expression as far back as 1628 according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary (11).  But ‘haw’, the turn left command, seems peculiar to the American South.  However, its probable roots reach much further back in time and place.  An English waggoner who wished to remain anonymous and referred to as ‘George’, was born in 1896 and  worked in the ‘Lincolnshire Wolds’ on the flat eastern side of central England.  He was an expert handling big shire horses for hauling heavy cartloads of corn as well as ploughing the fields. “When you was turning ‘em right at th’ head, you’d say ‘Gee’: and ‘Arve’ was turn left - I don’t know where cartloads as well as ploughing the fields. “When you was turning ‘em right at th’ head, you’d say ‘Gee’: and ‘Arve’ was turn left - I don’t know where that word comes from and I don’t know what it means”. (12) 

But his interviewer, in the early 1980s, sheds some light on this term.  It“ probably comes - not surprisingly in this heavily Viking-settled part of England - from Old Norse ‘horfa’, meaning ‘turn’”. (13)   And  “it is said of an obstinate or single-minded person that they ‘will neither gee nor ‘harve’” (14) according to ‘George’ and Bill Denby, another ‘horse chap’, from Yorkshire. A form of this became part of a floating verse in the early blues “What do you want with a woman she won’t gee nor haw?”. . In 1940, a  version appeared on a typical hard hitting Tommy McClennan side It’s Hard To Be Lonesome [Bluebird BB B8669].

  What you want with a woman. Now, now, an’ she don’t know ‘Yes’ from’No’?
Spoken:  Yeh!
What you want with a woman-whooo!-she don’t know ‘Yes from’ No’?
An’ what you want with one the good-lookin’ women an’ she don’t know ‘Gee’
from ‘Haw’? (Yeh-heh)  (15)

Following the advice of ‘Nate Shaw’ the great Blind Lemon Jefferson sings of a ‘balky’ [Footnote 5: Taken from the noun ‘balk’ there is no listing for an adjective such as Blind Lemon uses. The dictionary identifies ‘balk’ as “a barrier; a disappointment.” (16). Under the heading of the latter, a thesaurus includes the adjective “disgruntled”  (17). But see Barrelhouse Words, p.10. Re “Balk”.  Stephen Calt. [University of Illinois. Urbana & Chicago.] 2009.] mule which he likens to his girl friend or ‘crow jane’.  The requested bag would contain corn-part of the mule’s staple diet.

Spoken: Huh! Crow jane wants to have molasses. Man, she’s actin’ just like a balky mule. Hey! Mama, I’m gonna shift you. That feller hand me a bag over there, please.
Vocal: She was fussin’ an’ she was fightin’ an’ actin’ like a doggone fool;
'She was fussin’. She was fightin’ an’ actin’ like a doggone fool.
An’ himmerin’ an a-hawin’ an’ actin’ just like a balky mule. (18)

The ‘single tree’ in the Julius Daniels item already quoted was  a part of the mules’ harness positioned in the rear and connecting trace chains to the shoulders of the mule.  This had the effect of equalizing the animal’s load.  Text Box: Fitting the trace chains to the single tree which looks to be around 3 feet long.

Fitting the trace chains to the single tree which looks to be around 3 feet long.

All rarin’ to go go!

The ‘balky’ nature of the mule in Blind Lemon’s song is reflected in the animal’s apparent aversion to cross running water, such as a stream or river.  Especially when faced with a narrow crossing point.  In a more general situation back in the 1870s and ‘80s when the river still represented a major mode of transportation for all bulk freight in the South; when getting a mule aboard a steamboat or persuading it to disembark.  On the White River in Arkansas, Duane Huddleston and co. noted that the roustabouts or deckhands (invariably black on Southern waters) did all the loading and unloading when the boat arrived at any of the various landings dotted up and down the river.  “Roustabouts were probably paid more than most common laborers of the time, but they had to be strong.  If the cargo included animals, it was usually the duty of the deckhands not only to load them but to care for them.  Sometimes they could be a major problem”. (19)   In  one particular case “a stubborn mule refused to load.  After much coaxing with no success, some of the deckhands were ordered to carry the animal aboard and carry it aboard they did, flying hooves and all”. (20

Unknown black roustabout on a landing stage for the packet boat (carrying both passengers and freight) Ozark Queen c. 1897 on the upper White River, Arkansas.

Getting mules to leave a steamboat was just as problematic. According to one traveler at the time “roustabouts slowly persuaded mules, by pushing them and pulling them, to cross a narrow plank bridging the boat to the embankment”. (21)  This referred to the lengths of timber commonly known as ‘stages’ which were the only path for both passengers and cargo on a steamboat when at a landing point.  Nate Shaw’s balky mule even had him beat on one occasion.  Coming back with this animal from Vernon’s (his second son) place in southern Alabama c. 1945, he tells us in his own words: “I come on with the mule then and there’s a white old gentleman lived just up the road apiece from Vernon - RC Greenwood.  And after I passed Mr. Greenwood

One of the earliest mentions of mules and in very much
the same tone and phrasing as when advertising for an escaped slave

I hit a little bridge goin through a swamp… We got to that bridge and she swung back, wouldn’t come on across to this side.  Wouldn’t even step on it; looked  at it and pulled back.  I seed I couldn’t move her so I just walked that mule up to Mr. Greenwood’s House, told him, ‘Mr. Greenwood, I got a mule here and I’m on my way home with her and I can’t get her to cross that bridge down there. I’ll give you a quarter if you’ll just walk on down the road with me and the mule and help me get her across’. He looked at me and looked at the mule, said, ‘All right, Nate, I’m comin’ with you’. When we got back to the bridge I stepped on to go across and that mule pulled back again. Mr. Greenwood got behind her and just patted his hands on her and hollered: ‘Eeeeeeeyaaaaaah, eeeeeeeyaaaaahh’.  She lit on that bridge and come across.  Had no more trouble with her then.” (22)

This stubborn and ‘rebellious’ streak in mules can be traced back to ancient times and the wild ass.  There were two distinct breeds: Asinus hemippus (wild ass) and Asinus vulgaris (the domesticated ass). [23]  Originating from the continents of Asia and Africa, it appears that only the former (from ‘the East’) was the wild ass to be domesticated. But this was found to be a long process with very limited results.  Even when the wild ass is “captured very young, can scarcely ever be brought to bear a burden or draw a vehicle.  Attempts have often been made to domesticate the young that have been born in captivity, but with very slight success, the wild nature of the animal constantly breaking out, even when it appears to have become moderately tractable”. (24)   Or in other words has seemingly become docile.  This would appear to echo the approach of slave holders towards the first larger groups of Africans to be enslaved in Britain’s American colonies in the later seventeenth Century. [Footnote 6: See the ground-breaking book ‘Dreams Of Africa In Alabama (The slave ship Clotilda  and the story of the last Africans  brought to America)’. Sylviane A. Diouf. [O.U.P. New York] 1997.  Especially p.p.95-98 re humiliation-psychological methods as well as physical- inflicted on these Africans who were from  various far-flung regions in W.Africa and had no common language except a rudimentary style of  ‘pidgin’ English; certainly within  their first year of enslavement in Mobile, Alabama.]

Even the wild ass who was domesticated would sometimes revert to its original untamed nature.  In Palestine in the 1870s, an ass that “is disobedient and strays from its master” (25) gets an ear clipped or nicked each time it happens.  “Any Ass, no matter how handsome it may be, that has many of those clips. is always rejected by experienced travelers, as it is sure to be a dull as well as a disobedient beast”. (26)  Wood probably meant ‘sullen’ or ‘truculent’ rather than the popular concept we have of ‘dull’ in the 21st. Century.

Another drawback to the domestication of the wild ass was that “Hardy animal as is the Ass, it is not well adapted for the tolerance of cold, and seems to degenerate in size, strength, speed, and spirit in proportion as the climate becomes colder”. (
27)  The advent of the hybrid mule, on the other hand, could adapt to virtually any regional climate.  As was stated in an American agricultural encyclopedia from 1851:“Considerable numbers [of mules] are likewise employed in Ireland, and in some of the northern counties of Britain, on account of their great strength and durability.  No animal is more sure-footed or more hardy”. (28)   

The indomitable spirit of the wild ass, inherent in the mule and particularly the jack-also known as a ‘jackass’ - was reflected in the early African slaves and subsequently passed on to indigenous generations and later freedmen.  Within two or three decades the very first Blues singers, like the young wild ass, featured ‘breaking out’ in varying degrees via their lyrics.

An extreme case, if exceptional in blues, is illustrated by an early vaudeville blues singer, Josie Miles.


1. Gonna set the world on fire;
That is my one mad desire.
I’m a devil in disguise;
Got murder in my eyes.
2. Now, I could see blood runnin’ through the streets. (x 2)
Could see everybody layin’ dead right at my feet.
3. The man invented war, sure is my friend. (x 2)
Don’t believe that I am sinkin’, just look what a hole I am in. 
4. Give me gunpowder. Give me dynamite. (x 2)
Yes! I’d wreck the city, gonna blow it up tonight.
5. I took my big Winchester [See Footnote 7 below] down off the shelf. (x 2)
When I get through shootin’, there won’t be nobody left.

[Footnote 7: The ‘Winchester 73’ was claimed as the “fighting rifle of the old civilian   West”. (30)   This weapon was capable of holding 15 bullets in its magazine and was of “.44 caliber, in three styles” .(31)   Made until 1898 when the Winchester company’s “famous Model 94” (32) superseded it. The following year of 1895 saw the introduction of “nickel-steel barrels, making possible  use of smokeless powder”. (33)  No doubt it was a model of this rifle Josie  Miles took  ‘down off the shelf’. Ex-slave Andy Brice told his interviewer (1934-1941) how he prepared to face white intimidation at the polling station  to stop him voting on election day “at Woodward, South Carolina, in 1878,” (34) Brice stated “us got twenty sixteen-shooters” (35) and the author’s footnote ran: “Repeating rifles that carry sixteen bullets”.  (36)  Maybe Andy Brice (and the author?) was referring to one of the ‘three styles’ of  Winchester 73 noted by Foster-Harris above.]

Winchester 73-max length c. 2 1/2 feet. and  a .44 bullet.

Josie Miles’ hard, flat and nearly toneless vocal bringing an awful realism to her words.  Reflecting perhaps, a barely controlled and implacable hatred for ‘everybody’ who has done her and her fellow African Americans so many wrongs for such a protracted period of time since the 17th. Century, when enslavement of blacks became the order of the day in the American colonies.  For ‘everybody’ one could read ‘the total white population’.  Invoking sentiments that the rebellious preacher Nat Turner would have readily identified with during his bloody  and “most violent of the rebellions” (37) during August, 1831.  “Turners’ rebels had killed almost 60 white men, women, and children.” (38) before being captured and executed. 

The ultimate (?) forebear of the mule, the wild ass also ‘loathed’ everybody; or in this case mankind per se.  Rev. Wood writes in a description that Nat Turner - and Josie Miles (?) - would have recognized.  “…the Wild and the Domesticated Ass are exactly similar in appearance … that by the eye alone the two are hardly distinguishable from each other.  But with their appearance the resemblance ends, the domestic animal being quiet, docile and fond of man, while the wild animal is savage, intractable and has an invincible repugnance to human beings”. (39)   

The mule of the Southern states was not always so docile, fond of man, and certainly not quiet!  “No knowing man approached a mule from the rear.  A suspicious creature that not even blinders [blinkers] could always keep from envisioning danger, he would kick out at threats sensed but unseen. Hence the mule was always approached from the front and during currying [grooming] the man worked reassuringly from front to back, brushing the shoulders first and only at the end removing caked mud from the dangerous hind legs”. (40)  And ‘Nate Shaw’ had a big pair of mules which a white man, Mr. Watson, considered dangerous which was the latter’s ploy to get Nate to sell them and eventually sign a mortgage agreement on his home and farm.  In Nate’s words: “He  [Watson] knowed I had a pair of mules that didn’t hesitate and was able to do whatever I put em to.  They was dangerous.  I knowed that, but my boys I considered  grown and could handle em” [sic] (41). 

Wild assess sketch c. 1877.
“As wild asses in the desert go they forth”

 - Job xxiv. 5

Indeed, the Blues singer adapted a phrase referring to ‘the dangerous hind legs’ of a mule when referring to another man making love to his wife or girl friend.  ‘Another mule kicking in your stall’ appeared most famously in a 1951 post-war recording Long Distance Call [Chess 1452] by Muddy Waters but was already standard fare in many pre-war recordings.  For instance, in 1927, the Hicks brothers, otherwise Barbecue Bob and Charlie Lincoln (also recorded as ‘Laughing Charley’), both playing 12-string guitars traded quips and ‘jiving’ dialogue “to the accompaniment of the twenty-four strings of their thunderous guitars [and] they lead in to a blues sung in unison”. (42)
L.C. You know my best gal done quit me?
B.B. Which one was that, Willie?
L.C. Yeah! She left last night.
B.B. What’s the matter with you  an’ her?   You mustn’t  taken the payroll home.
L.C. Yeah! I taken my payroll. I borrowed fifteen dollars.

Oh, well. A case like that - very easy figured out. Another mule kicked in  your stall. Done kicked a little harder than you can kick. (43)

While in 1930, a driving Birmingham Jug Band cut Kicking Mule Blues [OKeh 8866] with an         unidentified raucous singer who’s essentially single-liners give a definite pre-blues feel to this performance.

  I’ve got those, mama-I got those-I’ve gotthem ‘Kickin’ Mule Blues’. Lord! Lord!
I’ve got those same damn ‘Kickin’ Mulin’, baby. Lord!
That was worse old mule I ever had done  kicked.(44)

The ‘quiet’ characteristic of the domesticated ass, designated by Rev. Wood in 1875, does not seem to have been passed on to the mule in the South.  Referring back to the nineteen-teens and twenties in Alabama, Nate Shaw recalled why a mule would often make its presence felt by emitting a loud ‘holler’ or ‘squall’.  As he said: “There’s two causes for a animal squallin - he needs feedin or he’s missin’ his mate” [sic] (45)  He went on: “My mules was used to eatin at dinner times, used to eatin every feedin time - mornin, dinner and night…Them mules looked to see me, bout twelve o’clock and I hadn’t feed em---‘agh-agh-agh-agh-agh-agh-agh-agh-agh’--- I’d look around and they standin lookin right at me with their heads up---‘agh-agh-agh-agh-agh-agh-agh-agh’---Sometimes they’d bray, squall out, ‘Eeeeeeee-eeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaawww,hagh-ah-hagh-ah-hagh-ah-hagh-ah-hagh-ah-hagh-ah’ That animal needs feedin.” [sic]. (46)   

Before the advent of the steamboat whistle (c. early 1840s), one of the loudest sounds on the southern landscape was the unmistakable call of the mule.  The Blues singer included it, with typical symbolic fashion in his/her songs and especially the sound of a mountain mule. [Footnote 8: “Mules were classed according size and were sold for a variety of uses. Their major classes were (1) sugar mules (for southern sugar plantations), (2) rice and cotton mules, (3) levee mules (for Mississippi River levee work), (4) mine mules, (5) railroad mules, and (6) mountaineer pack mules” ]  In 1926 one of the earliest references on record was cut by the ‘Mother of the Blues’, Ma Rainey.

  If I could holler just like a mountain jack. (x 2)
I’d go up on the mountain, call my good man back. (48)

This was covered by the fine Texas pianist Pinetop Burks in 1937 and variations of this stanza appeared in blues recorded by Curley Weaver (Sweet Petunia). Big Bill Broonzy (Mountain Blues), and Frank Brasswell (Mountain Girl Blues), in 1928, 1935, and 1930, respectively.  It is undoubtedly the case that many other examples exist in the annals of the early blues. [Footnote 9: Similar titles such as Mountain Top Blues (1924) by Bessie Smith; Mountain Blues by Washboard Sam; and Mountain Baby Blues by Monkey Joe Coleman; contain no references to the mule.]
A major contender for sheer volume of sound in the South
during pre-steam days, is the collective roar of many alligators; although nowhere as widespread as the mule’s holler. [Footnote 10: Another contender was a ‘musical’ one. John P. Parker, an ex-slave and a heroic ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad, describes it in ‘the old days’ on the Mississippi River, c. 1841: when the flat boat was still a rival of the newer steamboat. “Every flatboat had in its crew either a bugler or a fiddler. It was the duty of these musicians to entertain both their crew and announce their arrival at an evening landing, or approach to a large town. Some of these men became very proficient in the use of their instruments. Time and again [when] our steamer, the ‘Stag’ passed by a flatboat, the winding horn was blown in true English hunting style. When they landed at night, when they cut loose in the morning, and all through the day, these blasts and fiddlings could be heard across the water.” (49)]  As noted by William Bartram on one of his fascinating journeys in Florida during the later 18th. Century. He has terrifying battles with swarms of alligators/crocodiles (he stated that these names were interchangeable for the same animal at this time) with only a club and his gun or ‘piece’.  He was constantly kept awake at night (in this part of the St. Juan River) by their roaring.  As he put it so graphically: “But what is more surprising [than the alligators’ aggression] to a stranger, is the incredible loud and terrifying roar, which they are capable of making, especially in the spring season, their breeding time; it most resembles very heavy distant thunder, not only shaking the air and waters, but causing the earth to tremble; and when hundreds and thousands are roaring at the same time, you can scarcely be persuaded, but that the whole globe is violently and dangerously agitated.”. (50)

Another aspect of the mule noted by the Blues singer was the colour of its coat; in particular the white mule.  Once again, stretching back into antiquity, Rev. Wood reported that “White asses were selected for persons of high rank especially for those who exercised the office of judges.  See Judges v.10: ‘Speak, ye that rode on white asses, ye that sit in judgement, and walk by the way’.  Such Asses are still in use for similar purposes, and are bred expressly for the use of persons of rank.  They are larger, and are thought to be swifter than the ordinary breeds;” (51)  Wood observed that though the sight of an important government official or a judge riding an ass (aka ‘donkey’) in England would be strange indeed, (in 1875): “Both sexes used the Ass for riding, as they do now in the East.”. (52)  As he says elsewhere, (in his day) the ass “is the universal saddle-animal of the East.”. (53)  While the breeding of white asses may have vanished, the white mule was very much in evidence in the early 20th. Century in the South.

There were many mule traders in the era as not many plantation owners could be persuaded to breed their own.  “The general sentiment among southern farmers was that it was cheaper to buy fully grown mules for work in fields than to raise their own stock.” (54)  There were many markets scattered across the South to which these traders would go to buy their quote of mules.  “One of the biggest mule markets was Columbia, Tennessee. Where thousands of animals were raised and sold each year.” (55)  A local writer, in Columbia, J.L. Jones “eloquently praised the mule as long-lived, faithful companions for the farmer.  Jones recalled a mule in Middle 

Ray Lum’s base for trading mules & horses on main Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi - unk. date.

Tennessee that, when young, was a beautiful dapple gray (sic) but is now thirty years old, and is as white as snow.” (56)  One of Mississippi’s most celebrated mule traders was Ray Lum (1891-1976) who claimed “There’s lots of white mules … And did you know what color a white mule is when he’s born, as a rule?  Black.  Okay.  Born black.  They’d be out of a gray mare and a jack, and the jack’s black.  The mare’s gray, and the colt comes black and he just turns a little more gray every year.  He just turns whiter and whiter until he gets all white.” (57)

It seems that Blind Lemon Jefferson is singing about a pair of mules - especially as a male and female are also known as a ‘horse-mule’ and a ‘mare’, respectively.  Not only used extensively for farming work, hauling lumber, etc. the mule is also employed as a popular form of transportation for many rural blacks.  Back in the 1850s, ex-slave Robert Shepherd recalled for his white interviewer much later, that when a slave died on another plantation, “Marster would say: ‘Take de mules and wagons and go; but mind  you take good care of dem mules’.” (58)   Shepherd explained: “Dere weren’t  many folks sick dem days, especially amongst de slaves. When one did die, folks would go twelve or fifteen miles to de buryin’.” .(59)

[Footnote 11: Maybe more healthy in Kentucky where Robert Shepherd was enslaved and as pointed out elsewhere due to all food being cooked with no additives or  ‘poisons’ (chemicals) and truly organic, contributed greatly to the   health of  the  slaves. As well as so much fresh air and compulsory physical exercise! But further south in the malarial and snake-infested rice plantations, in Georgia and South Carolina for example, it was quite a different story. Although in 1937 another ex-slave, Julia Brown, concurs with Shepherd even  though she was enslaved in Georgia, near Commerce. “We  didn’t need many doctors then for we didn’t have so much sickness in them days, [end of 1850s to the early 1860s] and  naturally they didn’t die so fast. Folks lived a long time then” .(60)  (and see p.p. 22-23 Ibid; for detailed account of  herbal remedies, daily diet, and methods of cooking, etc. ) Commerce lies some 60 miles north ]

Team of two mules being driven by black farmers to the levee
 at Natchez-Under-The-Hill, Mississippi, with cotton bales to be loaded on to a steamboat - c.1890s.

So Lemon could be hitching a couple of mules to a wagon to go in search of his woman or ‘good gal’.

  Go git my black horse, an’ saddle up my grey mare;
I’m goin’ ‘ome to my good gal, she’s in the world somewhere
. (62)

It is readily apparent that white mules would have been in abundance given their longevity, often reaching 30 years or more and still working. But oddly no blues refers to them.  But I suppose a mule is a mule whatever their colour.  Except when their coats were black and grey as in Blind Lemon’s Black Horse Blues.

The very high esteem reserved for the mule by blacks since at least the beginning of the 20th. Century would naturally include the older animal or white mule. Indeed, with the advent of Prohibition in 1920, one of the most well-known moonshine concoctions (in the Blues)  was dubbed ‘White Mule’.  Presumably this potent liquor brought out the ‘wild and rebellious’ nature of the drinker.  In 1929, sometime-record company boss and comedic singer Winston Holmes got together with the superb 12-string guitarist Charlie Turner to cut an incisive two-part ‘religious’ parody entitled The Death Of Holme’s Mule [ Paramount 12793]. As Paul Oliver graphically described they incorporated the much loved multi-layer construct of many early blues (63) in their mainly spoken dialogue:

Charlie Turner: Hello there Holmes. What are you doing?
Winston Holmes: Well, old Jake’s dead an’ I’m buryin’ his mule.
C.T.: Buryin’ a mule without a prayer? You can’t do that.
W.H.: Why, you know I can’t sing or pray.
C.T.: Can’t sing or pray? Why I can’t either. Probably my old guitar can.
W.H.: You don’t mean to tell me that old guitar can sing an’ pray.
C.T.: Why, certainly.
W.H.: Alright. Let’s hear one of them old long-meter numbers [See Footnote 12 below]
C.T.: Hark from the tomb, the long-eared coon;
I hope my dog will catch ‘im soon.
                         Guitar ‘moans’
C.T.: (laughing) Boy! That sure is it. Ain’t it? Pastor, listen at that coon.
W.H.: Hark from the tomb, a doleful sound;
Someone stole my demi-john.
                         Guitar ‘moans’
W.H.: I’m gonna sprinkle some [goofer dust] blue stones;
Some of that graveyard dust on us.
When I get through with them, I bet they lay off me-let me alone.
This is the fourth time this year I’ve been hoodooed.
C.T.:   Hark! I see an’ I’ll pursue;
I’ll find my jug an’ whiskey, too.
W.H. Want you to give me some of that liquor, too, boy. If you do find it.
(moans) Mmmmmmmmmmm-mmmmmmm-mmmmmm-mmmmmm.
C.T.:  Am I a shoulder of a horse? [See Footnote 13 below]
A foreleg of a lamb?
Shall I shave my moustache off?
Or go just as I am?
                        Guitar ‘moans’ 
W.H.:  Now, say me a prayer, Mr. Turner.
                        Guitar ‘prays’ (66)

[Footnote 12: Paul Oliver hears “one of them long Moody numbers”. (64) But see his comments on earlier hymns re ‘hark from the tomb’, etc.]
[Footnote 13: See further Paul Oliver comments. (65)]

1930 ad from Chicago Defender.

Holmes refers to hoodoo spells including ingredients such as blue stones and graveyard dust (aka ‘goofer’ dust).  One version as to how the latter is to be obtained is to go to the cemetery at midnight -alone - and find a freshly dug grave (or one that’s less than six months old) containing the body of an executed murderer.  Making sure of laying a dime on top of the grave as silver payment to the spirit before thrusting an arm into the soil up to the armpit.  By carefully withdrawing the arm clutching a handful of graveyard dust.  This formed, sometimes along with other ingredients, a  powerful mojo hand. This would be, in this case, after consulting a hoodoo doctor referred to as “old man Horton”.

In the second part of this recording, Holmes goes round to Turner’s place late at night as he is worried  worried about “that mule that we buried”.  Charlie Turner agrees to go with him.  But not before Winston Holmes insists on taking some liquor along with them.


W.H.:  Well, uh; let’s go down, an’ bring me a demi-john along down with you, too.
C.T.: Alright.
W.H.: Well, sir. Don’t you know that my body is just all full of aches an’ pains.
I wonder if we doin’ any good for buryin’ that mule.
Uh! Maybe, maybe ol’ Burton or one of those fellers come down there an’ dug my mule up.
Come on. Let’s go on down there.
C.T.: Alright.
W.H.: Just, just one more drink though, before we go. Just, just a little drink. Don’t
take the demi-john away from me like that! Uh! Just wait a minute.
Oh! Lord. Oh! Lord. I wonder what’s the matter with me.
I believe I got a tree frog in me, boys.
Just as sure as you’ born.
I think I’ll go up an’ see if I can’t see old man Horton.
An’ see if he can’t help me get rid of this stuff, too.
Folks, here we are, now. See, right here. Here, here, here.
Well, look-a here.
Well, sir. Somebody done come here an’ dug up that mule.
Ohh! Brother Turner. Let’s have a prayer, right on from here.

Guitar ‘prays’

W.H.: Oh! Help my mule. Help my mule.
You know that I believe that mule is down to the yellow front  (
[Footnote 14: I surmise this refers to the level of liquor left-down to the top of the yellow label on the front of the bottle.]

Referring back to the mule as an animal, Holmes describes how it protected him from the  evil hoodoo spell of an “old lady” and chased her into the river!

W.H.: I see an old lady the other day. Sprinklin’ stuff in my front door.
An’ I thought I’d creep up toward ‘er. Last time I seen ‘er, old soul she was
  headin’ for the river.
An’, an’ don’t you know my old mule was right behind ‘er, too.
Glory to ‘is name. ‘Cos ‘e sure was behind ‘er. Yessir! (

Like Nate Shaw, who was once accused by a religious white man of worshipping all his property including his mules, (69) Winston Holmes seems to adapt this holy attitude.  Or at least he is deriding it.  He then sings in quasi-reverential tones:

  Glory to my mule.
Uh! When he died. How I moaned an’ groaned.
Glory to that mule.

Alright! Now, let’s have a little more of that prayin’ there, Brother Turner.
                  [Guitar ‘prays’]


Yes! Now, that’s it.
                  [Guitar still ‘praying’]  (70)

Neither was a mule’s funeral just recorded fiction.  In 1956 Nate Shaw bought a mule which became one of his favourites and he named her Kizzie.  He kept her for sixteen years then finally sold her to some black neighbours/relations: the McCaffrey brothers.  He told them “ ‘Take care of her. You see the shape she’s in.  I’d hate to see her go down’.  And every time Josie [his second wife] sees em -she goes over by Teak’s Church on the same road where they keeps that mule - she bones em about Kizzie and they tell her, ‘When that mule dies we goin to have Nate come over here and preach her funeral’.” [sic] (71)  And in the late 1880s in Natchez, Mississippi “When Rumble and Wensel’s 30-year-old ‘Old Rock’ died, an obituary appeared in the local paper”. (72

In 1929, the same year that Holmes and Turner cut their recording; another parody on the same subject was made by blues singers John Byrd and presumably Mae Glover: That White Mule Of Sin [Champion 15816].  Masquerading as ‘Reverend George Jones’ and ‘Sister Jones’ they commence with some traditional gospel verses before the ‘preacher’ opens his sermon with comments and moaning from the sister and unknown male in the ‘congregation’.  Parody it may have been but John Byrd, who only plays guitar in the introduction, comes across as a very ‘authentic’ preacher extending the mule symbolism present in the Holmes and Turner opus; with regard to White Mule illegal liquor.

R.G.J.:  Sisters an’ brothers, my subject tonight;
Will be that, that ‘White Mule of Sin’ (Yessir!)
Don’t get me confused. (No. No.)
About this ‘White Mule of Sin’. (Mmm-hmm)
Sister Jones, lead us in a word of prayer.
S.J.:  Our Father who art in Heaven;
The white man owed me ten dollars an’ I didn’t get but seven.
Thy kingdom come-uh. Thy will be done-uh;
I took that or I wouldn’t-a got none.
(& unk. male)
R.G.J.: Amen, sister. Now listen.
About my subject tonight. About that White Mule.
Don’t get me confused. (Mmm-hm)
About this White Mule.
That, the White Mule that (Mmm-mm) old Deacon Brown was so taken with.
It caused ‘im to weep (Come on, White Mule) an’ it caused ‘im to moan. (Come on, White Mule)

That mule that you ride-a side saddle or bareback; (Yes, sir)
Don’t mean that mule. That mule you ride, brother, an’ if’n give ‘im a chance. (???)
Now, brothers an’ sisters. Just a few nights ago;
A word came to me (Mmmm) that-a one of our beloved brothers down (Yes, sir) some town (hic-
uh) that a-ridin’ that White Mule of Sin. (Preach, sir)
In the report is that he was-uh (Yes, sir) tupped* until about midnight-mmmmm. (???) [*=drunk]
That White Mule of Sin. (Yes, sir) (unk.male???) throwed him side-wise on to a barbed wire
fence. (Mmm-mm)
An’ caused ‘im tuh, much grief. (Yes, sir)
An’ it (Preach, preach-unk. male) such pain, as it caused ‘im to weep an’ moan. (Yes, it did)
Ohhhh-er. Sisters an’ brothers, don’t be like Sister Jones. (

Sister Jones’ ‘prayer’ relating back to the antebellum song You Shall Be Free (74) and recorded famously by the Beale Street Sheiks as You Shall [Paramount 12518] in 1927.  This title and the next one from their first session (It’s A Good Thing) were “re-made on matrices 20043/44 … and both versions of each title were issued.” (75) about a month later. 

To many African American farmers, as well as blues singers, the relationship with their mules could be a type of the ‘love-hate’ variety.  Even if they could often read the mules’ thoughts, as Bill Ferris has stated.  On the one hand the mule could be bestowed with supernatural powers as implied by Big Bill Broonzy, and the animal could just take the whole planet away!  At least that’s the way it seems on his Plow Hand Blues [Vocalion 05452]. (and see Appendix I)

  I ain’t gon’ raise no more cotton. I declare I ain’t gon’ try to raise no more corn;
  I ain’t gon’ raise no more cotton, baby. I ain’t gon’ try to raise no more corn.
  Now, if a mule start to run away with the world-oooh! Lord- I’m gonna let ‘im go ahead on. (76)
A version appeared in truncated form by post-war Texas blues man Lightnin’ Hopkins in January 1959 as Goin’ Back To Florida [Folkways FS 3822] for pioneer blues writer Sam Charters. (Footnote 15: This appeared in the US on a 2-LP set The Rural Blues on the related  RBF label. Subsequently released in the UK on Xtra by Transatlantic Records. I have no        idea if all these recordings are still available or have ever been transferred to CD. Although most of these titles (the pre-war ones) have re-appeared on various CDs, and  the complete recording of Goin’  Back To Florida is on a Lightnin’ Hopkins release-titled  just that: Lightnin’ Hopkins.  [ Smithsonian/Folkways  CD  SF 40019]. 1990. First issued as an LP  on Folkways FS3822. 1959. Thanks to my kid brother ‘Hell Hound’ Rex for details of CD SF 40019.)  On the other hand, as well as the ‘worshipful’ approach by Nate Shaw, the mule acted in the role of a release valve for pent-up emotions concerning the way blacks were treated by the white man and his Jim Crow ‘laws’.  Paul Oliver whilst considering the lyrics of Go ‘Long Mule [Paramount 12247] by Ukulele Bob Williams, rightly pointed out: “Travelers in the South and ex-slaves alike recollected that a black worker could sing comments about his master or boss to his mule, which he could not say to the boss’s face”. (77)

The original record label for The Rural Blues set in 1964. Goin’ Back To Florida is track 8.
  I got a mule, he’s a fool;
He never showed no heed.
Till I built a fire beneath his tail;
And now he shows some speed.
  Go ‘long mule, don’t you roll them eyes;
You can’t change a fool, for a  doggone mule is a mule until he  dies. (

Although as Paul Oliver notes Williams is not so pointed or incisive as verses collected earlier in the field. (Footnote 16: See Songsters & Saints. Paul Oliver. Ibid. p.p. 104-106. for more detailed discussion re lyrics of  Go ‘Long Mule and some traditional verses). However, in some of his spoken comments Ukulele Bob Williams is certainly more frank.

Spoken: Come on there mule. Whatsa matter with you?
Get up off that ground.
How’s it every time I come, come out at you, you lay down?
You know I don’t like that rough stuff.
…You better get up off-a that ground.
‘Fore I ‘low you look at me like that;
 You know I’m gonna hurt you…
You better get up from there, right now. (79)

But a field recording made in 1936 by Library of Congress featuring Willie Williams, (no relation) makes no bones about it and threatens his team of mules with violence culminating in possible death in HIS comments, weaving between his stunning ‘work-song holler’; punctuated with ‘pops’ of his muleskinner’s ‘line’ (i.e. a whip).

Vocal:   Oh, Lord! They don’t ‘low me to beat ‘em;
Got to beg along.
Spoken: Get up, Rhoady! Be back there, Dempsey!
I don’t want-a kill you this mornin’.
Vocal: Ohhh! Lord. They don’t ‘low me to beat ’em;
Got to beg along.
Spoken: Back up a little bit…Git up out that mud there!
Look out there. I’ll knock you to your knees directly…Look out, Dempsey!
Vocal:  Lord, if my woman had-a been here, good pardner. Lord, I’d-a done been gone.
She’d-a brought my shooter, good pardner, an’ a box of balls.
Spoken: Look out Rhoady. Get up Jerry.
Look out there, Pearl.
I don’t want to kill one of you this mornin’.
Vocal:  Oh! Lord. Cap’n got a pistol an’ he want to be bad;
Must-a been the first one that he ever had.
Spoken: Look out there, Jerry!
Vocal: Oooh! Lord, [I] got a high-board wheeler;
Good pardner, an’ a western tongue.
Gonna stick it in the bottom, boys;
If it breaks my arm. (

Supporting Paul Oliver’s comments above, the Lomaxes - who recorded Willie Williams in a “bare room” in the state penitentiary, at Richmond, Virginia - called his performance one of the “hollerin’ songs”.  This genre, usually referred to as ‘field hollers’, is a cornerstone of the roots of the Blues.  These songs are “sung with an open throat - shouted, howled, growled, or moaned in such a fashion that they will fill a stretch of country, satisfy the wild and lonely and brooding spirit of the worker. (81) 

Although, some 7 years after recording this song by Willie Williams, B.A. Botkin and Alan Lomax stated “The final stanza is pervaded with the feeling of the heroic common to all laborers”; (82) they give no explanation as to the references in this verse - or stanza.  Probably because they didn’t know the actual sense of the words, and hadn’t asked Williams about that sense.  I certainly was puzzled for a long time until very recently trawling through one of the books in my library about the ‘old West’.  This tome devoted about half-a-dozen pages to early animal-hauled transportation, from the famous and large Conestoga wagon (often circled by ‘Indians’ in old cowboy movies) on down...  In the earlier 19th. Century these cumbersome vehicles had oxen, horses, or mules for their motivation.  Due to the often atrocious ‘roads’ at that time, a team of oxen were generally preferred.  But with the coming of at least some improvements in the shape of early highways and gravel/dirt roads, (Footnote 17: See When The Moon Creep over The Mountain (Highways in the Early Blues -  From Dirt Roads to Highway 61) - Part 1. Max  Haymes. Frog Blues & Jazz Annual No.2. p.p.157-164. Frog Records Limited. 2011. Paul Swinton  (Contributing Ed.) a smaller (but still large) wagon appeared known as a Prairie Schooner.  Now, horses and mules - faster than oxen -became more popular.  As Foster-Harris said, the Prairie Schooner was still “decidedly top-heavy, clumsy, and hard to handle in anything like broken country.  But it was widely used”. (83)  It is quite likely, Willie Williams had a Prairie Schooner in mind when he claimed to have a  ‘high-board wheeler’ alluding to the high wooden sides of the wagon (see pic.).  While the rear or ‘hind wheels’ are described as being “5 feet, 10 inches, the front ones a foot less in diameter”. (84)  And “these enormous wheels had tires 6 inches wide and an inch thick”. (85)  It is quite possible of course that the wagon in William’s song was a smaller vehicle than the Prairie Schooner, but still comparatively high-sided; also with high/big wheels. 

At this point, a little more preamble from Foster-Harris is illustrative as to the term ‘high roller’ which could well refer to the mule itself - or at least a certain team of mules.  Consisting of a minimum of two, a team in the old Conestoga days would often have six animals, in pairs, to haul their heavier loads.  “The front team was called the lead team, the middle one the swing team, and the rear one the wheel team”. (86)  Generally, in the South, by the late 19th. Century, the swing team was omitted and 4 mules were more the norm for larger loads.   Referring to the wheel team, Foster-Harris relates: “Since only this team could exert power to back or brake the wagon, these usually were the sturdiest horses in the outfit”.(87)  The same applied to a mule team, of course.  The ‘wheel mule’ easily corrupting to a ‘wheeler’, and ‘high’ and ‘big’ were interchangeable in their meaning as far as the muleskinner was concerned. 

This leads on to the other puzzling term in William’s song, ‘a western tongue’. The wheel team had “backing straps attached to their harness, heavy wide horizontal pieces across their buttocks, against which they could throw their weight to help slow or stop the wagon”. (88)  And “the wagon tongue was rigidly attached to the axle;…So by turning the wheel team, the driver could turn the wagon tongue, which in turn, steered the front wheels and so the wagon”.(89)  The wagon tongue was a “heavy pole which extended between them [the mules] from the front of the wagon up to about even with their noses.”, (90)  or as he says elsewhere, it was “another huge timber that fastened directly to the center of the axle, extending back to the end of the bed [in the wagon] and projecting some 12 feet in front of it”. (91) [see pic.]  Also “the long tongue kept the vehicle from tipping over”. (92

The ‘western’ part of Willie William’s phrase harks back to times when states such as Mississippi and Missouri were part of the old West and indicated the ‘new’ (at the time) ever-growing western frontier.  His ‘gonna stick it in the bottom’ line refers back to the Botkins & Lomax ‘heroic’.  Williams is going to turn that wagon tongue and cross the muddy river bottom lands (Footnote 18: For more detailed description of the river bottoms, see Railroadin’ Some Ibid. p.p.96-99.) no matter what - even ‘if it breaks my arm’. 

As these writers noted: “The holler is a musical platform from which the singer can freely state his individual woes, satirize enemies, and talk about his woman”. (93)  The muleskinner could also admire a hero who was hated by the white population; even if indirectly.  Willie Williams seems to refer to a four-mule team on his recording and they have names such as Jerry, Pearl, Rhoady, and Dempsey.  The first two are ‘harmless’ (but see Appendix II) enough as so is ‘Rhoady’, drawing on an earlier black plantation figure of ‘Aunt Rhody’ which is easily corrupted in song to ‘Rosie’; a notorious prostitute who visited southern black prisoners posing as a ‘wife’ of one of the inmates.  But with ‘Dempsey’ the picture becomes a little murkier.  This could well refer to a white heavyweight boxing champion from the nineteen-teens: Jack Dempsey.  Along with several other famous white boxers, Dempsey refused to go in the ring with the world heavyweight champion of the times - Jack Johnson; who was the first black to hold this title. (Footnote 19: See the definitive book on Jack Johnson: Unforgivable Blackness -The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson. Geoffrey C. Ward. [Pimlico. London] 2005. Rep. 1st. pub. 2004.)  Using the race card but naturally accused by blacks  (not without good reason) of being frightened of Johnson, Jack Dempsey is reduced to a mule who Willie Williams threatens to kill if he doesn’t obey him.  Indeed, one of his verses was  probably inspired by Julius Daniels on a 1927 record Ninety Nine Year Blues [Victor 20658].

  Bring me my pistol, three rounds of ball;
I’m gon’ kill everybody, whip this poor boy, Lord.
Poor boy, Lord. Poor boy, Lord. Poor boy, Lord. (

Invoking Josie Miles and her Mad Mama Blues from three years earlier (see just below Footnote 7 above).  That the rebellious nature of the ancient wild ass passed on to the mule is readily apparent in Daniel’s words.  Like Ms. Miles he is mainly aiming his anger at white people in general. Yet even he did not make any reference to Jack Johnson, and neither did any early blues singer - at least not on a record.  Unlike Joe Louis ‘the Brown Bomber’ who kept a low profile in the ‘30s when he was not fighting in the ring, who WAS eulogized on several blues recordings; Johnson actively flaunted his superior prowess as a world heavyweight champion and married or had relationships with white women and paraded the fact quite openly. (95) The latter appeared as a racial threat to the whites in a way the well-mannered Louis did not.  In 1930, the self-styled ‘High Sheriff from Hell’ and the ‘Devil’s Son-in-Law’ Peetie Wheatstraw felt he had to ‘downgrade’ the apocalyptic atmosphere of Josie Miles and Julius Daniels.

  Mmmm-bring me my pistol, shotgun an’ some shells;
Well, well, bring me my pistol. My shotgun an’ some shells.
Well, well now, I’ve been mistreated, baby an’ gonna raise some hell. (

Pianist Peetie Wheatstraw also featured some off-the-wall guitar on a small group of his many recordings. Pic. c. 1930.

The shotgun  seemed to be a spin-off of the Winchester rifle favoured by Ms. Miles and as the thirties progressed appeared in some blues as a species of floating verse.  As superb slide guitarist Oscar Woods ‘The Lone Wolf’ turns his anger on the woman he loves who has now left him.


Now, I sent my baby a brand new twenty dollar bill. (x 2)
If that don’t bring her, I know my shotgun will.  (

Ultimately, the devil who is so closely linked to the early blues - ‘the devil’s music’ – via recordings by Skip James, King Solomon Hill and Robert Johnson, et al., is also connected perhaps unsurprisingly to the ancestor of the Southern mule: the wild ass.  Rev. Wood gives an example of one legend concerning the ass and the devil.  This is an “old Rabbinical legend reflecting the Flood and the admission of the creatures into the ark.  It appears that no being could enter the ark unless specially invited to do so by Noah.  Now when the Flood came, and overwhelmed the world, the devil, who was at that time wandering upon the earth, saw that he was about to be cut off from contact from mankind, and that his dominion would be forever gone.  The ark being at last completed and the beasts called to enter it, in their proper order, the turn of the Ass came in due course.  Unfortunately for the welfare of mankind, the Ass was taken with a fit of obstinacy, and refused to enter the vessel according to orders.  After wasting much time over the obstinate animal, Noah at last lost patience, and struck the Ass sharply, crying at the same time ‘Enter, thou devil!’.  Of course the invitation was at once accepted, the devil entered the ark, and on the subsiding of the waters issued out to take his place in the newly begun world”. (98)  The answer to this particular ancient problem seems remarkably akin to the one Nate Shaw faced in Alabama, much later in 1945, at the foot of the narrow bridge across the swamp with his balky mule. (see ref. 22 above) 

For ‘a fit of obstinacy’ one could read resilience and strong determination.  Or as Rev. Wood put it “There are several passages of Scripture in which the Wild Ass is distinguished from the domesticated animal, and in all of them there is some reference made to its swiftness, its intractable nature, and love of freedom”. (99)   By the time the mule was being utilized in the South, these characteristics would be a major influence on enslaved African Americans and freedmen alike.  This also epitomizes the spirit of the Blues and goes a long way to explaining the reason why Southern blacks seemed to possess that ‘special gift to read the mules’ thoughts’ as American Blues author Bill Ferris referred to. (see ref 12 above)  The general demeanor of earlier African American music - sacred and secular - is reported ‘wild and unaccountable’ in the words of famous English actress Fannie Kemble during her stay in Georgia in the earlier 19th. Century.  The word ‘intractable’ has one definition which reads: “not to be governed or managed” (100) which perfectly describes the immortal phenomenon - the Blues. 


The ‘lowly mule’ as I deemed it in my Introduction has turned out to be anything but lowly in the Southern diaspora - especially as far as the black farming community was concerned - and most importantly for this survey; the early Blues singer.  This animal actually had the highest of ‘royal’ antecedents way down the line referring back to the domesticated wild ass in Biblical times.  Rev. Wood quoting from the Old Testament, makes several references to princes, rulers, judges, and powerful ‘chief men’; who all rode an ass (Judges 10:3,4, & 12: 13,14.) as it was seen as the most significant symbol of power and transportation in those early times; as well as a token of wealth.  One such chief is known across the globe, Abraham in the Book of Genesis.  Described by Wood as “an exceptionally wealthy man, and a chief of high position, [he] made use of the Ass for the saddle. (Gen. xxii.3).” (101)  And the obvious one being a king-Jesus-(Zecharia.9:9).  Wood rightly concludes: “so far from the use of the Ass as a saddle animal being a mark of humility it ought to be viewed in precisely the opposite light”. (102)  As he elaborates: “The fact is, there was no humility in the case, neither was the act [entry of Jerusalem by Jesus riding on an ass] so understood, by the people.  He rode upon an Ass as any prince or ruler would have done who was engaged on a peaceful journey, the horse being reserved for war purposes.  He rode an Ass, and not on the horse, because he was the Prince of Peace and not of war, as indeed is shown very clearly in the context”. (103)

Whether a black sharecropper such as Nate Shaw was aware of this ‘aristocratic heritage’ which had passed on to his mules, he certainly could not have had more respect for them than he actually did.  As he readily admitted they were up there with his wife and children in importance and quality of his life; hard and unrelenting as it may seem from a 21st. Century urban vantage point. 

But nevertheless, even as a Billiken Johnson might reflect this respect on his Wild Jack Blues, there were other singers who did not.  Mississippi’s Sam Chatman quite cheerfully used the mule as part of the rich tapestry of sexual symbolism which coursed through the Blues.  Although one of the famous Mississippi Sheiks string band, like most of his siblings he did not record with them.  Indeed, the group usually consisted - on record - of superior fiddler Lonnie Chatman and singer/guitarist Walter Vinson, with occasional support from Bo Chatman; better known as a solo artist sporting the name Bo Carter.  Sam Chatman is no longer so enamored of his wife or lover, inferring he can no longer satisfy her undiminished sexual demands, as he gets older; at the same time putting the blame on her!

  Go on old grey mule, you ain’t what you used to be; (x 2)
The way you ridin’ now, sure is killin’ me. (104)

Lonnie supplying a comic fiddle imitation of a braying mule which was also used by some old timey musicians on recordings in the 1920s. 

But there were also drivers or muleskinners who treated their teams in a more brutal fashion.  Maybe, they ‘saw’ their unfortunate mules as surrogate mean white bosses, as Paul Oliver has suggested.  In 1971, another Mississippi musician, in the cane fife and drum tradition, recalled an old work song/holler from earlier days.  Othar Turner’s words sadly reflected a widespread practice of mis-treatment.

  Whoa how can I drive it,
Oh, babe, I done broke my line.
Whoa, captain, captain,
Whoa, I done broke my line…whoaaa.
  How can I drive him. How can I drive him,
Whoa, captain, I done broke my line.
Whoa, my wheel mule crippled
Whoa, my lead mule blind.
Meanwhile, from East Texas, blues man Texas Alexander sang of a mule pen - or ‘corral’ - at a levee camp, possibly on the Brazos River; he had been forced to work at after being arrested on trumped –up charges by a town’s local white authorities - a regular occurrence for blacks as part of the evil convict-lease system. (Footnote 20: See Railroadin’ Some Ibid. p.p.66, 161-163, 165, 170-173, 175-192. for in-depth study on the convict-lease system which did  not get finally terminated until 1928.)  The singer looks in vain for a mule which does not show signs of abusive and excessive ill-treatment.  On his Levee Camp Moan Blues [OKeh 8498] in 1927, Texas Alexander emanates the emotional power and intensity of the Blues.  Whilst bemoaning having to work an obviously injured mule team: Mona and Bell (Footnote 21: As with many of my  transcriptions , I am open to any alternative suggestions as to what a singer is actually saying. Texas Alexander’s vocal style sometimes clouded his words and  sections of  the above verses have proved particularly elusive to blues historians over the years.).
Only known pic. of
Texas Alexander
  Uuuuh! Went all round that whole corral;
I couldn’t find a mule with ‘is shoulder well;
Lord, I couldn’t find a mule with ‘is shoulder well.
Uuuuh! Worked old Mon[a} an’ I worked old Bell;
I couldn’t find a mule an’ ‘is, ‘is shoulder well.
Lord, that Mon’ an’ Bell.

The singer’s long drawn-out moans harking back to the Lomax’s  ‘hollerin’ songs’ (see ref. 93 above) as featured by Willie Williams, for example.  The one major addition being the very skillful guitar phrases supplied by Lonnie Johnson, which interlace the archaic vocal with almost cunning dexterity.  As pioneer Blues author Sam Charters put it, Alexander’s “style of singing, with its close relationship to the holler, enabled him to use the field songs almost without change... [together with] Lonnie Johnson, who developed a free guitar style to accompany the slow field chants, and their first duets were richly musical.” (108)  But his resulting masterful accompaniment came at a price.  As he told Paul Oliver many years later: “He was a very difficult singer to accompany; he was liable to jump a bar, or five bars, or anything.  You just had to be a fast thinker to play for Texas Alexander. When you been out there with him you done nine days work in one! Believe me, brother, he was hard to play for.”. (109)  

But on balance, the majority of muleskinners treated their animals with respect.  Although they had developed frightening skills with a tool of ‘guidance’ - the dreaded bullwhip.  “Typically a bull whip had a short hickory handle, 2 feet long, a braided body from 12 feet to as much as 20 feet long, then finally a buckskin popper… An expert … could knock a fly off the ear of an ox [or mule] 20 feet away without bringing blood. (Footnote 22: A song called Mule Train which featured imitations of this hard cracking sound was popularized by the white US ballad singer Frankie Laine - amongst other hit versions including one by country man Tennessee Ernie Ford- in 1949 (107). A few years later on, as a young lad in the UK, I was part of an audience at some sort of local  function which included a bald-headed   man performing Mule Train with an aluminium /silver  tea tray which he kept banging on the top of his head at the appropriate ‘whip-cracking’ moment. The effect was startling and only ended when  the performer realized a trickle of blood was running down his face!)  He could also cut the eyes out of a human opponent’s face or slash him to ribbons”. (110)  Perhaps not quite as deadly but bloody all the same, were the bullwhipping skills of a certain ‘Captain Jack’ (white) who was overseer of a gang of black prisoners according to Mississippi’s Son House on his remake of a 1930 Paramount recording he did for the Library of Congress in 1942.  This new version of County Farm Blues [matrix 6608-A-1(a)] included a necessarily limited protest about the ill-treatment suffered by black prisoners at the time, and perhaps was a sign of the times as House omitted any such scenario from his original recording in 1930.


Down South when you do
 anything that’s wrong,
Down South when you do
anything that’s wrong;
Down South when you do
anything that’s wrong.
They’ll sure put you down on the
County Farm.

  Put you down under a man they
 call Captain Jack,
Put you under a man call Captain
Put you under a man they call
 Captain Jack.
He’ll sure write his name up an’
 down your back.

But as far as his mules were concerned “… being valuable the … whip popper seldom actually injured his animals”. (112)  However, Foster-Harris adds: “… his language notoriously was enough to scorch even a mule’s thick hide;” (113)  Of course in reality it was the amount of venom and anger in the muleskinner’s tone of voice as well as the strength of his bullwhip which would finally motivate most  obstinate animals. 

Part of a Charley Patton ad. - c.1929 with super-imposed pic.

As well as the artists in this text, the mule also featured in early blues by rural singers as varied as William Harris, Kokomo Arnold, Rabbit Brown, Otto Virgial; more urban performers like Casey Bill Weldon and Jazz Gillum; vaudeville blues artist Lizzie Miles; and the Hall Johnson Choir wearing their secular hat.  Even a hokum singer ‘Blind Bogus’ Ben Covington would remember his roots and dropping his sobriquets recorded a recently discovered Muleskinner Moan from c.1928 accompanied by a fine but unidentified pianist.  This can be considered an offshoot or precursor of the Willie Williams O Lord, Don’ ‘Low Me To Beat ‘Em he recorded for the Library of Congress in 1936. The mule was simply as much a part of their environment and life-style as the barrelhouse, cabaret, railroad, levee or the seemingly endless steamboat landings on the Mississippi, Red, Arkansas, Tombigbee or Ohio rivers and many other southern ‘streams’.  

Mule-drawn trolley or street car in Silver Street, Natchez-Under-The Hill, Mississippi. c.1885.

As well as being one of the main factors in the Southern agriculture system prior to the 1950s. the mule assumed other roles such as hauling trolleys through the city; these were the precursor of the electric street cars around the turn of the 20th. Century.  Interestingly, it was generally the mule that was used for trolleys in the South (see pic.) while the North preferred the horse.  As well as being  a mode of transport carrying an individual as depicted in the Charley Patton ad. (see above), when harnessed to a small two-wheeled vehicle; blacks and whites could travel several miles into the woods to attend a picnic.  This was a light personal buggy called a ‘Sulky’.  These picnics were often larger affairs lasting  a couple of days and frequently featured black string bands for entertainment with fiddle, guitar, banjo, or mandolin.  Leadbelly would refer to these events as ‘sukey jumps’. (see Appendix III)    

As well as being the main source for hauling urban trolleys or street cars before the advent of the electrified version, the mule became identified with a far more powerful icon – the steam locomotive.  The term for a horse mule (‘jackass’ or ‘jack’) was transferred to this new and awesome invention and became part of the well-used phrase ‘balling the jack’. (Footnote 23: See Railroadin’ Some. Ibid. p.37 for more details of this phrase.)  Apart from appearing in some early blues lyrics in different titled songs, there was a lone entry in the canon which obviously featured the jack as the basis of the main theme.  In 1937 the great St. Louis-based pianist Walter Davis cut his Big Jack Engine Blues [Bluebird B87325].  Adapting traditional verses to his own inimitable style and greatly enhanced by Henry Townsend’s facile guitar, Davis sings of going to the Piedmont area down south where he can see part of the Appalachian range - the Smoky Mountains - which are actually in Eastern USA; but ‘west’ is the obvious choice using poetic license in Davis’ lines.

  Lord, I think I heard, mama, that big jack engine blow;
Mama, I think I heard that big jack engine blow.
Lord, when leavin’ this time, lord, I ain’t comin’ back no more.
  My home ain’t here, baby. It’s way out in the west;
My home ain’t here, baby. Lord, it’s way out in the west.
Out in the Smoky Mountains, now baby, where those eagles build their nest. (

There was even at least two particular locomotives which acquired the sobriquet ‘Old Maud’(e) which had mule connotations.  Black oil cleaners in a roundhouse - which was where the engines were stored when not in use - would literally come up against this ‘railroad mule’.  One was “America’s first articulated, or Mallet engine”, (115) completed for the Baltimore & Ohio RR. (B.&O) in 1904, some 20 years after it had been successfully designed by Anatole Mallet in France. (116)  Stover describes this locomotive as a “giant 0-6-6-0 [wheel formation] … and had an impressive tractive power of 71,500 pounds”. (117)  Qualities that would be much admired by the Blues singer.  As Stover tells it: “The engine carried the number ‘2400’, but since it was often balky, it was frequently called ‘Old Maude’ [sic] after a comic strip mule of that day.”; (118) invoking the Blind Lemon Jefferson song (see ref. 18 above).

0-6-6-0 Mallet ‘Old Maude’  of the B.&O in 1904

Of probably older vintage, going back to the end of the 19th. Century, was a switch engine (UK = shunter) on the Southern Railway “An 0-4-4T No.1509 named ‘MAUD’ … converted  from questionable ancestry and served Pegram [repair] Shops in Atlanta.”. (119)  Again, this loco would be used in the work environment of the African American - the freight and marshalling yards of the various railroads including the Southern.  The switcher or ‘shop goat’ in US railroad parlance would be admired similarly for its endurance while performing long hours of heavy work.  ‘Maud’ was still working in 1940 down in Atlanta, Georgia - heavy blues territory.  Just as no doubt many mules would still be doing, and there were bound to include several named Maud after their comic strip counterpart. 

Interestingly, a recording was made in Atlanta when the Southerns’ Maud would till have been switching box cars, etc. in the freight yards.  In 1928 Alec Johnson, an older singer, recorded his Sister Maud Mule [Columbia 14378] accompanied by Mississippi musicians Kansas and Charlie McCoy on guitar and mandolin respectively, Bo Carter (as ‘Bo Chatmon’) on fiddle, with a seldom-heard unknown piano player.  The stubborn and fierce independence of spirit shown by ‘Sister Maud’ is akin to the anarchic character in Mad Mama Blues by Josie Miles.  Johnson’s appellation ‘Sister’ pointing up the solidarity he felt with such a spirit.  Is it a coincidence that this mule’s name has the same spelling as the Southern Railway’s switch engine?

The Southern’s 0-4-4-T switch engine  from  the “Forney shop…at North Avenue coal chute Atlanta in 1940 after delivering an overhauled engine from Pegram Shops.” (120)  The name Maud is on the side of the headlight in front of the smoke stack.


Sister Maud Mule had a high temper;
She must have been born that way.

2. She kept her poppa busy;
Turnin’ down her damper ‘cos she was so red hot all day.
3. Before she’d give an inch, she’d take a mile;
An’ sometime she’d take two.
Wasn’t nothin’ new [you] could ask of her but what she’d say to you:
Refrain: I ain’t gon’ do it;
Try to make me do it.
You can’t make me do it, that’s all.
4. You can ‘him’ an’ ‘haw’;
Kick an’ paw.
An' argue ‘til you fall.
You can lead a mule to water. You can make ‘im stop;
But you can’t make the fool drink a doggone drop
Ref: I ain’t gon’ do it;
Wouldn’t care to do it.
I ain’t gon’ do it, that’s all.

               instrumental break
Ref: I ain’t gon’ do it;
‘Clare I wouldn’t do it.
I ain’t gon’ do it, that’s all.
5.  You can rave an’ rant;
‘Phew’ an’ pant.
Lord, until you fall.
You can point your pistol at me;
You can call the ‘law’.
An’ I’ll fight you ‘til I’m greyer than a rat’s granpaw.
Ref: I ain’t gon’ do it;
Swear I wouldn’t do it.
I ain’t gon’ do it, that’s all.

                instrumental break
Ref: I ain’t gonna do it;
Said I wouldn’t do it.
An’ I won’t do it, that’s all.
6. You can rave an’ rant;
‘Phew’ an’ pant.
An’ so on until you fall.
You can call the whole militia;
An’ the colonel ,too.
Let ‘em put some fireworks on me;
An’ see what I’ll do.
Ref: I ain’t gonna do it;
Said I wouldn’t do it.
I won’t do it, that’s all. (121)

Of course the ‘comic strip’ referred to, would have been even more accessible to Alec Johnson.  Created by Frederick Burr Opper in 1904 - the same year the Mallet locomotive appeared on the tracks - it ran in the Sunday newspaper the New York Journal, for several years. (122)   It’s usual title was And Her Name Was Maud along with other famous strips by the same author. And although “Maud was phased out in the 1910s , [she] reappeared [by public demand] from 1926 to the last appearance  on October 14 1932.” (123) Markenstein’s description of Maud hits the nail on the head in regard to both her and the Blues singer.  “Maud was a mule, but  a mule with a real personality ---which included a stubborn streak that did credit to her species. What she liked to do best was get up on her front legs and deliver a resounding kick with her rear pair. She was generous with her kicks, and her very favorite target was Si Keeler, the farmer she belonged to. Or, rather, the one whose farm she lived on and whose hay she ate - it probably isn’t quite accurate to say she ‘belonged’ to anyone”. (124)   It is the last sentence which so typifies the rebellious power of the Blues - and Maud’s ancestor the Wild Ass from Africa.  Alec Johnson’s song is a classic example of the mule’s and the blues singer’s unshakeable psyche.

He appears to be an older man as has already been said. Not just because of his vocals but also his style, and that of his younger musicians’ playing.  Sister Maud Mule invokes the aura of minstrelsy and the medicine show.  But there is a glimpse of an earlier time back in the immediate post-war years in the South.  Johnson’s references to ‘the whole militia’ and  ‘the colonel, too’ probably allude to the Yankee soldiers who soon after the Civil War monitored the Freedmens Bureaux set up by the Federal government to mobilize the Reconstruction period.  “The greatest numbers of ex-slaves were cared for by Agents of the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands - commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau. This agency of the War Department was created by Congress near the end of the War (March 3, 1865)”. (125

A  pic. from the celebrated cartoon And They Called Her Maud

Unlike Opper’s mule Maud, an un-named animal in real life is featured in a Memphis Minnie song from 1935 - Sylvester And His Mule Blues [Decca 7084].

  Sylvester went out ‘is lot. He looked at ‘is mule;
An’ he decided he send the President some news.
Sylvester went out in ‘is lot, an’ he looked at ‘is mule;
An’ he decided he would send the President some news.
  Sylvester walked out across ‘is field, begin to pray an’ moan;
He cried “Oh! Lord, believe I’m gonna lose my home”.
Sylvester walked out across ‘is farm, begin to pray an’ moan;
He cried “Oh! Lord, I believe I will lose my home”.
  He called his President on the telephone;
I wanna talk to you about to lose my home.
He called the President on the telephone;
I wanna talk to you. I’m ‘bout to lose my home. (

Re-telling the case of a farmer who was hitting the bottom in survival stakes during the Great Depression, and was forced to sell his mule.  In desperation he rings the White House in Washington and asks to speak to the President - Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Initially Sylvester’s call is answered by a secretary before actually getting through to the President himself.  Roosevelt assures him he will look into Sylvester’s case and indeed some help was forthcoming within the following few months by way of the distraught farmer getting access to a mortgage loan scheme (Footnote 24: See the definitive book on Roosevelt which includes a whole chapter on this  incident: Roosevelt’s Blues (African American Blues And Gospel Songs On F.D.R.). Guido Van Rijn.[University Press of Mississippi. Jackson] 1997.)  as part of the federal government policy. In 1934, the year previous to Minnie’s recording, the ever-popular Rev. J.M. Gates uses the Sylvester case while praising the greatness and fairness of FDR - “I mean he is a friend to everybody, both white and black. Both brown - everybody ... Look at Mississippi. Yonder on the river. A Negro with his mule”. (127)  Gates gives his full name as Sylvester Harris but not before prompting from a female member of his congregation! 

Although Frederick Burr Opper’s And Her Name Was Maud was his own creation, it is undoubtedly true he must have been inspired in part by the tradition of folk tales that are rich seams in the bedrock of the South since the 17th. Century.  Of course Sylvester’s mule would have become part of that tradition. One of the main and richest sources emanated from the slave community.  Opper’s even more famous contemporary Joel Chandler Harris himself is a classic example with his ever-popular tales of Brer Rabbit and co. 

As a US author, John Blassingame, explains at some length.  These folk tales were an essential core ‘tool’ for the slaves’ survival - both physically and spiritually in a secular way.  These “are in many respects easier to analyse than spirituals or secular songs even though the systematic collection of them is more recent”. (128)  Blassingame continues: “Primarily a means of entertainment, the tales also represented the distillation of folk wisdom and were used as an instructional device to teach young slaves how to survive.”. (129)  But the slave did not live in perpetual denial of his everyday life.  “While holding on to the reality of existence, the slave gave full play to his wish fulfillment in the tales, especially in those involving animals.  Identifying with the frightened and helpless creatures, so similar in their relations to the larger animals to the relationship of the slave to the master, the slave storytellers showed how the weak could survive. Especially in the Brer Rabbit tales, the hero, whether trickster or braggart, always defeated them larger animals through cunning.”  (130)   

By the time the Blues - it is usually agreed - had  arrived in the 1880s and 90s, other animals appeared in the singers’ repertoire such as panthers, rattlesnakes, black spiders, boll weevils, bears, wolves, buzzards, and bumble bees; hardly of the ‘frightened and helpless’ variety.  Of course these examples and others including the hyena, jaybird, etc. hark back to songs from West African cultures.  Some were handed down in oral history via Haiti and voodoo beliefs.  Birds were also invoked in the shaping of the Blues.  Owls (often called ‘hoot-owls’) and the whippoorwill are part of the hoodoo/voodoo cult which is still relevant today and included by early singers in the Blues.  Also the eagle, ‘turkle’ (turtle) dove, robin,  and the beautiful blue bird; were all part of the environment that the first Blues performers found themselves in. (Footnote 25: See Birds And The Blues by Max Haymes. www.earlyblues.com).

Along with the domesticated/farm animals, the mule became an important nucleus of inspiration for earlier rural black communities and especially the Blues singer. As Blassingame put it “By objectifying the conditions of his life in the folk tales, the slave was in a better position to cope with them. The depersonalization of these conditions did not, however, distract the slaves’ sense of the brutal reality of his life”. (131)   The Blues singer is simply continuing and evolving these slave story tellers’ tales. A classic example appears in Casey Blues [Bluebird B6519] by Casey Bill Weldon in 1936, which also utilizes the mule symbolism. His woman has been gone for much longer than he expected and after a dream ‘clinches’ the matter, he admits the truth of the situation - his relationship is over - but does not consider he was any part of its cause.

  Whooa! I wonder what’s the matter, Casey Bill can’t get no mail. (x 2)
Whoa! The post office must-a be on fire. Whoo-ooh! The mailman must-a be in jail.
  Lord, my hair is risin’ an’ my flesh begin to crawl. (x 2)
Lord, I had a dream last night. Whoo-ooh! Another  mule was kickin’ in my stall.
  Well, well. If I can’t be your rockin’ chair mama, I ain’t gonna be your stool;
Well, if I can’t be your rockin’ chair mama, I ain’t gonna be your stool.
Well, well. If I can’t be your wagon. Whoo-oo! I sure ain’t gonna be your mule.(

It was not the fact of the Blues singer’s own personal failure which helped cause the break-up of a loving relationship.  It was the ‘mean old train’ or its ‘cruel fireman’ and ‘low-down engineer’ which took their partner away from them.   In his Hangman’s Blues [Paramount 12679 - matrix 20816-2], Blind Lemon Jefferson in the role of a condemned murderer clings to the vain hope that a hoodoo doctor can save him from his imminent hempen execution. (Footnote 26: See Railroadin’ Some. Ibid. Ch. 7 for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s denial of his lover’s death in Gone Dead On You Blues  and also a small group of blues describing  the partner leaving at the train station for the last time scenario where all blame  for the break-up is placed on the railroad, and/or train crew, or the train /locomotive itself.


Let’s see. The Friday is always my bad luck day. Hmmm. If I could find me a hoodoo--doctor, I’d make my getaway. (133)

But, oddly perhaps, despite the foregoing central importance of folk tales to the well-being of initially the enslaved blacks, then the freedmen, and subsequently the Blues singers in the 20th. Century; animals are included in the Brer Rabbit tales; only a couple of references are made to the mule by Joel Chandler Harris.  Even these do not appear in the famous stories themselves but are featured in songs collected from blacks earlier in the 19th. Century.  One of these was titled Corn Shucking Song and runs in part:

  Oh, honey, w’en you year dat old roan mule whicker-
(Hey O! Hi O! Up’n down de Bango!)   [see Appendix IV]
W’en you see Mister Moon turnin’ pale en gittin’ sicker-
(Hey O! Hi O! Up’n down de Bango!)
Den hit’s time fer ter handle dat corn a little quicker-
(Hey O! Hi O! Up’n down de Bango!)
Ef you wanter git a smell er old Marster’s jug er licker-
(Hi O, Miss Sindy Ann!)  (

Which ever attitude a black worker adopted towards the mules under his care, be it in the fields, on a levee, digging a ditch or transporting on a steamboat, for example; he/she generally identified with the animals in a ‘oneness’ that could only develop over many years being in regular close proximity in a kind of two-way reciprocal process.  After all, the mule depended and expected to be regularly fed, watered, and sheltered; at the very least. Also as an intelligent animal it must have felt some sort of ‘bonding’ especially towards a private owner on smaller and medium sized farms, certainly in the South.  Sometimes the black worker seemed to resent the animal’s position as being far more secure in life than his own in his everyday existence in the South.  Ex-slave, Thomas Cole, born “August 8, 1845”. (135) in Jackson County, Alabama, declared “Den, when a slave gets grown, he is jest lak a mule.  He works for his grub and a few clothes and works jest as hard as a mule.  Some of de slaves on de plantation ‘jinin’ our’n [next to ours] didn’t have as easy a time as de mules, for de mules was fed good, but de slaves lak ter have starved ter death; de marster jest gives dem nuf to eat ter keep dem alive.”. (136)  This was taken from the Federal Writers Project between 1934 and 1941, linked to the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The latter appearing in several early blues singers’ recordings - including titles by Casey Bill Weldon and Peetie Wheatstraw.  Thomas Cole’s resentment was still mainly directed at his mules rather than the white ‘marster’ of the plantation.  But in 1930 one blues singer made no bones about the cause of his own mistreatment - the ‘boss’ or white contractor who ran the levee camp.

  A levee camp mule an’ a levee camp man. (x 2)
They work side by side, an’ it sure is man for man.
  A levee camp man ain’t got but two legs you know. (x 2)
But ‘e puts in the same hours that a mule do on four. 
  I wouldn’t drive no four-mule team. (x 2)
For no doggone contractor I ever seen. (137)

Mules with drays at the levee - Greenville, Mississippi. c. late 1890s.
Note glimpse at right of the Kate Adams side-wheeler-notorious for being ‘a floating brothel’ by blues singers.

But although the South moved at a far more leisurely pace than other regions in the US, the scenario recalled by Gene Campbell was inevitably being replaced by more modern technology.  The tractor which had been shunned by the majority of the white plantation owners while cheap labour, in the form of share cropping, was readily available; were gradually forced into a transition from a primarily mono-culture of ‘king cotton’ to a more widely embracing agricultural programme of diversification.  By the late 1930s the tractor (already well-established in other regions) finally ‘arrived’ in the South, along with other innovations such as the mechanical cotton picker.  “What kept the mule in the Delta was the fact that the mechanical cotton picker had not yet been perfected, though the mule had little to do with the actual harvest … After the war labor was slow in returning, and by then the mechanical picker had come on the market.(138) Along with other innovations such as the crop sprayer plane, the plantation owner had a “tractor with a flame cultivator to burn the weeds; the same driver [who operated the mechanical cotton picker] and tractor equipped with other specialized implements to cultivate the cotton, eradicate the grass, plant the seed, drill in the fertilizer, knock down the furrows, break the land. A tractor with a skilled driver could take the place of ten mules and ten men with their dependents.”. (139)

The ‘evil’ tractor sneaking up in the rear-Jefferson County, Mississippi. Unk. date.

Yet to the Southern black farm worker this situation was seen as a threat to their annual income -which indeed it was.  More machinery naturally meant less farm workers.  So Sleepy John Estes echoed a popular if somewhat reactionary sentiment.

  Now, they oughta cut off so many trucks an’ tractors, white folks you oughta work more
mules an’ men;
Now, you oughta cut off so many trucks an’ tractors, white folks you oughta work more
mules an’ men.
Son Bonds (spoken) Tell ‘em about it.
Then you know that will make
Son Bonds (spoken) What?
Oh! Boys, money get thick again.
  Now, when a man gets to gatherin’, you know he’s turnin’ stocks in the field;
Now, when a man gets to gatherin’, you-all know he’s turnin’ stocks in field.
He say he goin’ sell ‘is corn an’ buy gas,
Oh! Boys, an’ sport in ‘is automobile.  [go out riding in his car]   (

As has been illustrated at some length the mule was one of the major icons in the world of early blues singers.  Apart from songs/artists already quoted the mule appears in blues by Skip James, William Harris, King David’s Jug Band,  amongst many, many more. 

The blues singer, along with his forbears born in slavery, shared much the same work conditions and environment as the mule. Back in the antebellum period former slave John P. Parker recalled for his interviewer Frank Gregg (a white man) between 1886 and 1889, on his time in Alabama during the 1830s and ‘40s and how slaves “were sold south like their mules to clear away their [Alabama’s] forests.”; (141) preparing the land for the large cotton plantations yet to come. Indeed, the blues and the mule are too intertwined to be seen as separate entities.  As master bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson employs some simple yet graphic poetry on his initial secular, and probably most awesome, recording in 1926: 

                                Well, the Blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule. (142)

‘Mississippi’ Max Haymes.
July 2012.

Ó Max Haymes

Appendix I
- Plow Hand Blues & Big Bill
Appendix II
- A Mule called Jerry
Appendix III
- Sukey jump/Soo cow
Appendix IV
- Bango



1. Wood Rev. J.G. p.285.
2. Ibid.  
3. ‘Wild Jack Blues’

Billiken Johnson prob. vo., vo. effects, speech; Neal Roberts pno.8/12/28. Dallas, Texas.

4. Ibid.  
5. Ferris William R. p.8.
6. Rosengarten T. p.p.530-531.
7. Patterson R.F. (Ed.) p.223.
8. Ferris Ibid. p.13. (William Faulkner quote)
9. ‘Can’t Put A Bridle On The Mule This Morning’ Julius Daniels vo. gtr.; prob. Wilbert Andrews gtr. 24/10/27. Atlanta, Georgia.
10. Partridge E.


11. Ibid.  
12. Kightly C. (Ed.) p.52.
13. Ibid.  
14. Ibid. p.230.
15. ‘It’s Hard To Be Lonesome’

Tommy McClennan vo. gtr., speech, laughing; unk. bs.10/5/40. Chicago, Illinois.

16. Patterson Ibid. p.27.
17. Roget P.M. p.101.
18. ‘Balky Mule Blues’

Blind Lemon Jefferson vo. gtr., speech.c. -/2/28. Chicago, Illinois.

19. Huddleston D. S.C. Rose. P.T. Wood. p.36.
20. Ibid.  
21. Buchanan T. p.74.  
22. Rosengarten Ibid. p.461
23. Wood Ibid. See p.284.
24. Ibid. p.281.
25. Ibid. p.275.
26. Ibid. p.276.
27. Ibid. p.270.
28. Carr Black P. (Ed.) p.4.
29. ‘Mad Mama’s Blues’-Tk. C?

Josie Miles vo.; acc. Kansas City Five: prob. Bubber Miley cor.; prob. Jake Frazier tbn.; prob. Bob Fuller clt.; unk. pno.; prob. Elmer Snowden bjo. 21/11/24. New York City.

30. Foster-Harris p.72.
31. Ibid.  
32. Ibid. p.73.
33. Ibid.  
34. Mellon J. (Ed.)            p.405.  
35. Ibid.  
36. Ibid.  
37. Mellard J.M. p.227.
38. Ibid.  
39. Wood Ibid. p.284.
40. Carter B.W. p.30.
41. Rosengarten Ibid. p.329.
42. Oliver P.

Notes to The Story of The Blues ( 2 x L.P.s) [CBS 66218] 1969.

43. ‘It Won’t Be Long Now’-Pt.1

Barbecue Bob vo. gtr., speech; Charlie Lincoln (as ‘Laughing Charlie’) vo. gtr.,speech, laughing.

44. ‘Kicking Mule Blues’

Birmingham Jug Band: unk. vo.; hca.; mand.; gtr.; jug.11/12/30. Atlanta, Georgia.

45. Rosengarten Ibid. p.450.
46. Ibid.  
47. Ferris Ibid. p.8.
48. ‘Mountain Jack Blues’-Tk.1.

Ma Rainey vo.; Jimmy Blythe pno. c. -/3/26. Chicago, Illinois.

49. Sprague S.S. (Ed.) p.33.
50. Bartram W.


51. Wood. Ibid. p.267.
52. Ibid.  
53. Ibid.


54. Ferris.

Ibid. p.7.

55. Ibid. p.8.
56. Ibid. p.11.
57. Lum R. p.47.   
58. Yetman N.R. p.119.
59. Ibid.  
60. Ibid. p.22.
61. Internet

Jackson County: County History.  http://www.jacksoncountygov.com  18th.Dec. 2011. 

62. ‘Black Horse Blues’

Blind Lemon Jefferson vo. gtr. c. -/4/26. Chicago, Illinois.

63. Oliver P. See p.p. 135-137. (Songsters & Saints)
64. Ibid. Ibid. p.136.
65. Ibid. p.p.136-137.
66. ‘The Death Of Holme’s Mule-Pt.1’

Winston Holmes speech, moaning; Charlie Turner gtr., speech., laughing.21/6/29. Richmond, Indiana.

67. ‘The Death Of Holme’s Mule-Pt.2’

Winston Holmes speech, vo., vo. effects; Charlie Turner gtr., speech; unk. sound effects.  21/6/29. Richmond, Indiana.

68. Ibid.  
69. Rosengarten Ibid. See p.p. 450-451.
70. ‘The Death Of Holme’s Mule-Pt.2’ Ibid.
71. Rosengarten

Ibid. p.529.

72. Gandy J.W. & T.H. Gandy. p.47. 
73. ‘That White Mule of Sin’       

John Byrd (as ‘Reverend George Jones’) vo. gtr., preaching, moaning; prob. Mae Glover vo., ‘praying’, speech. moaning; unk. male speech.29/7/29. Richmond, Indiana.

74. Oliver P. See p.p. 57-61. (Screening the Blues)
75. Dixon R.M.W.J. Godrich. H. Rye.


76. ‘Plow Hand Blues’

Big Bill Broonzy (as ‘Big Bill’) vo. gtr.; Joshua Altheimer pno.; Fred Williams dms.26/1/40. Chicago, Illinois.

77. Oliver. Ibid. p.105. (Songsters & Saints)
78. ‘Go ‘Long Mule’

Ukulele Bob Williams vo. kazoo, ukulele, speech.c. -/11/24. Chicago, Illinois.

79. Ibid.  
80. ‘O Lord, Don’ ‘Low Me To Beat ‘Em’ (L of C) Willie Williams vo. speech; hand-clapping-‘popping’ the line.  30/5/36. State Penitentiary, Richmond, Virginia.
81. Botkin B.A. & Alan Lomax (Eds)

p.18 . Notes to Negro Work Songs And Calls. [Rounder CD 1517.] 1999.

82. Ibid. p.19.
83. Foster-Harris Ibid. p.160.
84. Ibid. p.159.
85. Ibid. p.160.
86. Ibid.


87. Ibid. p.155.
88. Ibid. p.p.155-156.
89. Ibid.  
90. Ibid. p.155.
91. Ibid. p.158.
92. Ibid.


93. Botkin & Lomax. Ibid. p.18.
94. ‘Ninety-Nine Year Blues-Tk.2’

Julius Daniels vo.gtr. 19/2/27. Atlanta, Georgia.

95. Ward G.C. (See Bibliography) 
96. ‘Ain’t It A Pity And A Shame’

Peetie Wheatstraw vo. pno.; Charlie Jordan gtr.

97. ‘Lone Wolf Blues’

Oscar Woods (as ‘The Lone Wolf’) vo. gtr. 21/3/36. New Orleans, Louisiana.

98. Wood. Ibid. p.p.277-278.
99. Ibid. p.279
100. Patterson.

Ibid. p. 218.

101. Wood Ibid. p.264.
102. Ibid. p.265.
103. Ibid.  
104. ‘Old Grey Mule You Ain’t What You Used To Be’ Chatman Brothers: Sam Chatmon vo. gtr.speech; Lonnie Chatmon vln.15/10/36. New Orleans, Louisiana.
105. Internet

www.folkstreams.net  From a film by Bill Ferris, Judy Pevier, & David Evans. From the Center of Southern Folklore, Oxford, Mississippi. 1971.

106. ‘Levee Camp Moan Blues’

Texas Alexander vo. moaning; Lonnie Johnson gtr. 12/8/27. New York City. N.Y.

107. See Internet www.wikapedia.org/wiki/Mule_Train
108. Charters S.


109. Oliver P.

Notes to CD. Texas Alexander Volume 1. [Matchbox MBCD 2001] 1993.

110. Foster-Harris.

Ibid. p.162.

111. ‘County Farm Blues’ (L of C) Son House vo. gtr. 17/7/42. Robinsonville, Mississippi
112. Foster-Harris Ibid. p.163.
113. Ibid.  
114. ‘Big Jack Engine Blues’

Walter Davis vo. pno.; prob. Henry Townsend gtr. 11/11/37. Aurora, Illinois.

115. Stover J.F. p.197.
116. See Stover Ibid.
117. Ibid.  
118. Ibid.  
119. Prince R.E. p.71.
120. Ibid.  
121. ‘Sister Maud Mule’

Alec Johnson vo.; Kansas Joe gtr.; Charlie McCoy mand.; Bo Chatman vln.; unk. pno. 2/11/28. Atlanta, Georgia.

122. Markenstein Don


123. Internet

en.wikopedia.org/Wiki/And_Her_Name_Maud  2nd February 2012.

124. Internet  www.toonopedia.com/maud
125. Abramson D.E. p.119.
126. ‘Sylvester And His Mule Blues’

Memphis Minnie vo. gtr.; unk. pno. 10/1/35. Chicago, Illinois.

127. ‘President Roosevelt Is Everybody’s Friend’ Rev. J.M. Gates preaching; vocal by one female (prob. Sister Clara Hudman) & unk. male. 1/8/34. Atlanta, Georgia.
128. Blassingame J. p.27.
129. Ibid.  
130. Ibid. p.p.127-128.
131. Ibid. p.p.129-130.
132. ‘Casey Blues’

Casey Bill Weldon vo. gtr.; poss. Black Bob pno.; unk. bs.2/4/36. Chicago, Illinois.

133. ‘Hangman’s Blues’

Blind Lemon Jefferson vo. gtr. speech. c. -/8/28. Chicago, Illinois.

134. Harris J.C. p.p.185-186.
135. Mellon Ibid. p.55.
136. Ibid. p.56.
137. ‘Levee Camp Man Blues’

Gene Campbell vo. gtr.  c. -/5/30. Chicago, Illinois.

138. Carter B.W. Ibid. p.p. 37-38. (Mules & Men)
139. Ibid.


140. ‘Working Man Blues’

Sleepy John Estes vo. gtr., speech; Son Bonds gtr., speech.24/9/41. Chicago, Illinois.

141. Sprague Ibid. p.30.
142. ‘Got The Blues’

Blind Lemon Jefferson vo. gtr.  Prob. c. -/5/26. Chicago, Illinois


1. Buchanan T.C. Ibid. p.35
2. Wood Rev. J.G. Ibid. p.286
3. Wood Ibid. p.269
4. Carr B.P. Ibid. p.19
5. Ibid.  
6. Huddleston D. et al. Ibid. p.35
7. Carr Ibid. p.13
8. Foster-Harris Ibid. p.130
9. Wood Ibid. p.282
10. Moore Dave Notes to Brown-Skin Gal Barbecue Bob. L.P.
[Agram AB 2001] 1976.
11. Carr Ibid. p.46
12. Ibid  
13. Author's collection  
14. Gandy J. & T.H. Ibid. p.47
15. Author's collection  
16. Author's collection  
17. Foster-Harris Ibid. p.151
18. Author's collection  
19. Author's collection  
20. Author's collection  
21. Gandy & Gandy Ibid. p.28
22. Foster-Harris Ibid. p.168
23. Stover J.F. Ibid. p.?
24. Prince R.E. Ibid. p.?
25. Internet  
26. Carr Ibid. p.9
27. Ibid. p.41

Additions/Corrections & Transcriptions by Max Haymes.
Website conversion of original transcript by Alan White.


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