I first heard the tune sung by one rockin’ band that played in a cafe in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. In fact, Bell Buckle’s only cafe. The band was out of Alabama, somewhere.
Immediately the question was begged: What the hell is a muleskinner ? You may also wonder, where is Bell Buckle ?
My old Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Case, always admonished: One question at a time. Her delivery was notably caustic for us tender five year olds, but the social norms were different then. It was 1958.
So, in deference to Mrs. Case, I’ll go with the easiest question first. Heck, everybody knows where Bell Buckle is. Middle Tennessee, 50 miles due south of Nashville. In fact, we owned a farm there once. It had wonderful views.
Former Civil War country, we once plucked from the dirt, with the help of a metal detector, a pile of Union minies and Confederate round balls, bullets, for those not familiar with the terms. Little doubt was left that we owned a bit of a battlefield. ( Battle of Union Gap, Nov. 9&10, 1863 took place just over the next hill.)
I digress. What was a muleskinner? By profession, he/she drove teams of mules that either pulled drays loaded with cargo or towed floating cargo barges using a towpath along a canal.
Muleskinners were notorious bullies to their animals, but they had to keep moving. This was commerce. There was regimen.
It was said that some muleskinners were deft with their whips, that from 20 feet behind they could pluck a tortuous horsefly from a mule’s ear without touching the ear !
The crack of the whip, incidentally, sounded like a pistol. If it was brought to bear on a mule’s hide, it could quite possibly slice the skin. “Muleskinner” begins to make sense.
I love Dolly Parton’s version of Muleskinner Blues, complete with incredibly long-held notes and amazing yodels . Tonight’s yodels at Bell Buckle were remarkable, as well. Surely they would have impelled any mule team’s attention, even clear across the railroad tracks.
So where is all of this old lore going ? He’ll, I don’t know! How did I even get on the subject? Was it something you said ?
I can tell you this: There was a standing ovation that night at the Bell Buckle Cafe. The mule skinner lore lived on.
Oh, about the Battle of Union Gap, just around the corner of our former place, there is a tiny cemetery. There inscripted in a large block of granite are the words of an eloquent farewell speech delivered by General Nathan Bedford Forrest to his troops. There are maybe 30 gravestones. The only inscription in each one is these three words :
UNKNOWN CONFEDERATE SOLDIER
What became of the bodies of Union soldiers who fell at Union Gap ? I don’t know.
Perhaps it may be assumed that record of their burial is detail lost to the ages, never as much as written down for the agonized mother somewhere up north who would never see her son again.
Indeed, the Union Gap incursion was a microcosm of the unspeakable sorrow visited on America by that war.