Tuesday, June 26, 2007

7 Means of Movement: Interlude 2, Asses and Mules

Fletcher Henderson, Jackass Blues.
The Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller, The Donkey Serenade.
The Tennors, Ride Your Donkey.
Alec Johnson and the Mississippi Sheiks, Sister Maud Mule.
Coley Jones and the Dallas String Band, Army Mule in No Man's Land.
Bo Diddley, Whoa Mule (Shine).
Junior Wells and Earl Hooker, Galloping Horses A Lazy Mule.
Grant McLennan, Black Mule.

So disaster was again postponed and I felt grateful to the ass-boy whose timely death had won me a day's grace at least. But I was not allowed to spend even that short time in rest and gratitude. The boy's mother, in deep mourning, burst into my stable...She howled out dismally: "Look at him! Look at him, that heartless beast, that glutton, with his head stuck in the manger! He even has the audacity to think that he'll pass for innocent and escape being punished for all his sins...

Now in the name of the blessed gods, you vilest of four-footed creatures--even if you could learn to talk, do you really think that you could persuade the biggest fool alive that you aren't responsible for my darling's murder?"

She untied her apron and used the strings to knot my legs together, each to each...next she snatched up a great bar which was used to secure the stable door, and banged me with it until she had to let it drop in exhaustion. Then, complaining that her arms had got tired before she had fully avenged her son, she ran back to the house and took a burning faggot from the hearth, to thrust between my thighs. I had no means of defence but what I had used after my first attempt to escape: I squirted a volley of liquid dung into her face and drove her off, blinded and stinking.

Apuleius, The Golden Ass.

Horses generally get all the press--and I'm one to talk, seeing how I just devoted a ridiculous amount of words to the creatures. But the ass and the mule deserve equal treatment, having endured and indulged mankind for at least as long as their cousin the horse has.

If the horse has come to symbolize might and dominance, the other members of the equid family have had their own roles to play. The ass is the court jester of animals, clever and skeptical (think of Benjamin, the cynical, questioning donkey of Orwell's Animal Farm), a bit ridiculous, always getting into scrapes.

Yet the donkey also has been long associated with divinity, having borne the pregnant Virgin Mary (anyone remember the 1977 Rankin-Bass cartoon Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, one of the grimmest Christmas specials ever made?), as well as bringing her son into Jerusalem some thirty years later. (And in 1600, Giordano Bruno was carried by donkey to the town square in Rome where he was burned at the stake for heresy.)

Fletcher Henderson's "Jackass Blues" features the solo debut of trombonist Benny Morton and a fantastic stop-time solo by Rex Stewart on cornet. Coleman Hawkins is on this track as well, keeping a low profile. Recorded in New York on 14 May 1926; on the Harmony and Vocalion Sessions.

"The Donkey Serenade" was a popular song in the '40s, perhaps best known in Allan Jones' wildly florid quasi-operatic version, featuring a lyric that not only has lots of South-of-the-Border gimmickry but also seems to think the donkey and mule are interchangeable. Still, this recording, broadcast on the radio live from New York in early 1940, with Glenn Miller's Orchestra backing the Andrews Sisters, is swing music at its ebullient peak. On The Chesterfield Broadcasts Vol. 1.

And the Tennors' fantastic "Ride Your Donkey" is from 1968, and is also known as "Ride The Donkey," "Ride Mi Donkey" and "Donkey Returns." Released in the UK as Island WI3133. On History of Trojan Records 68-71.

Now 'orses they are 'orses, but a mule, 'e is a mule
(Bit o' devil, bit o' monkey, bit o' bloomin' boundin' fool!)
Oh, I'm usin' all the adjectives I didn't learn at school
On the prancin', glancin', rag--time dancin' army transport mule.

C. Fox Smith, "Mules." (WWI-era poem, printed in Punch.)

Then there's the mule, the product of a male ass and a female horse. In one of nature's odd parlor tricks, the mule is generally born sterile, and so each mule alive is the end of his or her line. This grants a sense of fatalism to the mule, I'd like to imagine, and may explain why the mule, according to legend, is no hurry to go anywhere, nor will carry too heavy a burden.

Alec Johnson and Coley Jones were similar types of entertainers--their heyday was the 1920s, and both were sort of jacks-of-all-musics roaming the South, sometimes working as part of a pure country string band act, sometimes venturing into an early sort of hillbilly jazz, depending on whoever was paying on a given night.

On "Sister Maud Mule," Jackson is backed up by the Mississippi Sheiks, a Southern string band that also doubled as a sort of minstrel hot jazz band. "Sister Maud Mule" was recorded on 2 November 1928; on Folks, He Do Sure Pull Some Bow.

And Jones's "Army Mule in No Man's Land," performed with the Dallas String Band, is a World War I song, coming at the ebb tide of the genre's popularity. Recorded in Dallas on 3 December 1927; on Texas Blues (also eMusic).

Bo Diddley's "Whoa Mule" is from 1960; on the essential Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger.

The same year brought Junior Wells and Earl Hooker's wild "Galloping Horses a Lazy Mule," with Hooker offering some hot guitar licks while Wells moans about his stodgy mule, featuring Johnny Walker (piano, organ), Earnest Johnson (b) and Harold Tidwell (d); recorded 8 August 1960 in Chicago and released as Chief 7016. On Blues Guitar.

Finally, the late Grant McLennan's vision of nuns riding black mules, and other oddities. On 1991's Watershed.

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