EDITOR’S NOTE: First of 2-part series
“Good morning captain, good morning son. Do you need another mule skinner, out on your new road line?”
That’s part of the lyrics of “Mule Skinner Blues” that helped launch the career of Bill Monroe back in 1940 before he became known as the “Father of Blue Grass Music” -- named after his band, “The Blue Grass Boys,” and the Blue Grass State of Kentucky.
So what does legendary Middle Tennessee Mule Skinner Buddy Black have in common with the late great Bill Monroe?
“Bill Monroe had mules, and he worked mules in his youth,’’ noted Cannon County resident Black about the world famous musician. “And when Bill Monroe was performing in Middle Tennessee, he was a good friend to the father of locally-famous horse trainer Bud Seaton. So I got to be around Bill Monroe a time or two, and we talked mules, plus I’m a big Blue Grass music fan too.”
Milton-area resident Seaton recalls his father, the late mule man Lake Seaton, being a fan of Bill Monroe and his music. And Seaton credits Black with being among the most talented “mule men” in Middle Tennessee history.
“Dad and Mr. Monroe would get together some and talk about their growing up and working with mules,” Seaton noted.
“And we all recognize Buddy Black as one of the most talented, gifted people who ever worked mules in this part of the country.”
Mule Patriarch Black, a former chief deputy with the Cannon County Sheriff’s Department, took note of the first stanza of “Mule Skinner Blues.”
“When they ask in that first part of the song, ‘Do you need another mule skinner out on your new road line?” … that song was very true to the era it was written,” clarified Black. “All back country roads in Middle Tennessee were originally constructed by mule power. I recall when folks didn’t have cash to pay their road tax, so they donated labor and use of their mules to meet their obligation, and to smooth out the back country roads before paving arrived.”
Bill Smith, another legendary mule man from Cannon County, agrees. And since Black is age 85, and retired banker Bill Smith is 96 years young, they know about mule heritage in these Middle Tennessee hills.
“As a 4-year-old, I recall seeing all the mules used in breaking up the earth when the great turnpike (Highway 70S) was constructed between Woodbury and Murfreesboro in 1922,” confirmed Mr. Smith.
Mules and related music also helped usher in the early history of radio and country music.
“Uncle Dave Macon, before he became the first super star on WSM Radio’s Grand Ole Opry, was our community’s most famous mule skinner with his own freight-hauling company right here in Woodbury,” Black confirmed. “On Mondays, Uncle Dave would hitch his load in Woodbury, drive his mules and wagon to Readyville where he would stay the night.
“Uncle Dave would go into Murfreesboro the next day, and then return to Woodbury, where he would stop and rest his mules before driving them east on over the mountains to McMinnville,” confirmed Black. “Mules were important to our music heritage too.”
The song “Mule Skinner Blues” goes back to the earliest days of the Opry, which started in the mid-1920s.
The song, also known as “Blue Yodel #8”, was written by the late great musician Jimmy Rodgers of Meridian, Miss., and a songwriter named George Vaughan.
In Rodgers’ recorded version, he does a lot of yodeling, a popular talent in the early days of radio.
Dolly Parton had her own lyrics when she recorded Mule Skinner Blues in 1970: “Well, I’m a lady skinner, from down Tennessee way, hey hey, I come from Tennessee. I can make any mule listen, or I won’t accept your pay … hey hey, I won’t take your pay.”
Dolly also yodels and does her own whistling in her spirited version of Mule Skinner Blues.
The term “mule skinner” has nothing to do with removing the hide from a dead mule’s carcass.
“Mule skinners and mules have plowed and tilled the soil, along with construction jobs in early America, before mechanization and tractor power,” Black defined. “Some young people today don’t understand the meaning of being a mule skinner.”
“Mule skinners are the folks who can keep mules moving in the fields. “The term ‘skinner’ is slang for someone who can ‘skin,’ … or outsmart the mules to make them move, which can take a special talent and determination.”
Black began his working knowledge of mules as a 6-year-old child on his parents’ rural Milton-community that straddles the line between Rutherford and Cannon counties.
His first working mule was named Kate.
“Kate was a mature black mare mule, an animal my father (the late) Hillard Black bought from the daddy of Donald Paschall, who became a legendary trainer of Tennessee Walking Horses,” Black plowed back in time. “We farmed about 175 acres, a pretty good sized farm back in mule power days before tractors.
“My work with Kate was to bust (plow) the middle out between the rows of corn,” he traced. “The well-broke (trained) Kate was the only mule my parents would let me work as a small boy.
“In the early days, I recall Granddaddy (William) Denny would sit in a chair at the end of each row of corn watching me and Kate work, to make certain I was safe,” Black recalled. “Granddaddy worked mules until in his mid-80s before he went to be with the Good Lord at age 95.”
Black reconstructed a work day back on the farm when he strongly disliked cow-milking duty.
“We were up before sunrise, about 5 a.m., and we’d go to the barn to milk the cows,” Black accounted. “I swore then to never again milk a cow, and I haven’t.”
After cow milking, menfolk would go back to the house “for Mom’s vittles.”
“Mother (the former Eva Grooms of Auburntown) would cook fresh biscuits three meals a day, for Father didn’t like anything warmed over,” Black recalled a typical breakfast feast on the farm. “We’d have fresh sausage or cured country ham, along with eggs and gravy. We had to eat hardy meals to keep up with the farm work and those mules.”
Black credits (the late) Jack Stroude of Sparta with being “the most talented mule skinner” he ever worked around.
“I recall Jack and me working a 20-mule hitch three years in a row during Woodbury’s Good Ole Days’ parades,” Black recalled. “I rode behind the wheel mule and Jack rode the fourth mule because the lead mules could not hear me all the way from the back, but they could hear Jack Stroude hollering out instruction from atop that fourth mule as we paraded through downtown Woodbury.”
“You have to be strong and the mules gotta know you’re in charge to work a big 20-mule hitch,” added mule skinner Bill Smith, who founded the annual “Good Ole Days” parade in Woodbury back in the 1970s.
Mule Skinners Smith and Black are also founding members of the Woodbury-based Middle Tennessee Mule Skinner’s Association.
Writer’s note: Part 2 of Mule Skinner Buddy Black’s life will describe the Mule Skinner Association’s goal of establishing a Mule Museum on Woodbury’s pristine Courthouse Square.