Mule Skinner Blues

Traditional, 1890s

What does the song suggest about working conditions for this labor? Itinerate, no job security, low paying, child labor, "hand-to-mouth."

Why were people still using mules—weren't machines taking over manual labor? Where was animal labor still being used in the 1880s and 1890s? Local transportation, construction, agriculture, mining, military. What is a mule? What advantages did mules have over horses? What other animals were used as work animals? Oxen, horses.

What does the song suggest about the adjustments African American workers made after emancipation? Finding work, managing low wages, working as an individual contractor as opposed to a member of a community of enslaved people.

What are equivalent jobs today? How much do they pay? How do working conditions compare with 140 years ago? How do wages compare after they are adjusted for inflation?

What songs today use the blues form? What are your favorites?


"Mule Skinner Blues" performed by Odetta on Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, Salem, MA: Tradition [TCD1004], © 1996. Available on Itunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

During her fifty-year career, Odetta (1930–2008) sang blues, folk, work, and protest songs. Often called the “female Leadbelly” because of her singing style, Odetta was an important influence on many folk and rock artists. Her singing is characteristic of the blues style, retaining the sliding and bending of tones from the field holler. Her performances also contain improvisations, making each performance and recording a unique.

View the music and lyrics for "Mule Skinner Blues."

As African Americans adjusted to new ways of life following emancipation, their music changed. The blues was a new musical form that built on the old patterns of work songs, spirituals, and field hollers—call and response and syncopated rhythms—but added new elements. In the blues, the notes of a blues scale are often “bent” up and down to create expressive “blue notes” that would be considered out of tune in other repertories. Blues songs are often patterned into three-line stanzas that stretch across twelve bars of music. Unlike the communal work songs and spirituals from the days of enslavement, the blues are solo songs that express the personal experiences of an individual.

"Mule Skinner Blues" is a work song of itinerate mule drivers who would pick up day-to-day work on farms or construction teams. Despite their skills, they struggled to find work and to make ends meet.

Even though mechanization in factories and railroads was revolutionizing the nation, local transportation and construction and farm labor still relied heavily on the muscle power of humans and animals. Horses and mules were used in mines and even in the construction of skyscrapers, which were just beginning to appear in this period.

Muleskinner Photo by Russell Lee, October 1938. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, reproduction number LC-USF33-011845-M2 DLC

Muleskinner Photo by Russell Lee, October 1938. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, reproduction number LC-USF33-011845-M2 DLC

skinner: driver of a team of horses or mules.

Compare the mule skinner's wages with that of other jobs of the era. Using newspapers, catalogs, and other sources, create a budget for a mule skinner based on $1.10 per week.

Write a blues work song about a job you do—chores, after-school job, or your job as a student. Ask for volunteer singers and guitarists to arrange and perform a few of the songs.