Sunday, March 17, 2013

Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On) - Lyrics & Comments, Part I

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series on the game song "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)."

Part I compares "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On) with two other songs: the 19th century Southern Black song/old time banjo (Bluegrass) song "Whoa Mule Whoa" and the 19th century African American game song "Peep Squirrel". Part I also presents two text versions of "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)". One of these versions includes a Mp3 sample.

Click for Part II of this series.

Part II of this series presents additional text examples of and comments about "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)".

The content of this song is presented for historical folkloric, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

"Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)" isn't the same song as "Whoa Mule" ("Whoa Mule Whoa"). "Whoa Mule" is a 19th century African American dance song which is also sung & played as an old time/Bluegrass banjo song. There are numerous versions of "Whoa Mule" and each of the text forms of that song are composed in a verse/chorus pattern. The verses are two line rhyming floaters which are found in multiple songs, including the 19th century Black dance song entitled "Simon Slick".

Links to text examples and a video example of Whoa Mule are provided in the related links section of this post.

In contrast, "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)" is a song with a short varying line & a repeated refrain, a format which lends itself to it being sung using a call & response pattern. That said, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that "Whoa Mule" was the primary source of "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On").

The song that "Whoa Mule: Saddle" resembles the most in its lyric pattern, in its words, and perhaps also in its tune is the 19th century African American children's play-party/chasing game "Peep Squirrel". Initially, the performance activities for "Peep Squirrel" and "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On" may have also been the same. Here's an excerpt of "Peep Squirrel":

Here Squirrel
Yada dada diddle um

Catch that squirrel
Yada dada diddle um

Run Squirrel
Yada dada diddle um
[From The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip; Cerlina Lewis; Click the tab to hear that Mp3 sample.]
The only difference in the text of the examples of "Whoa Mule:Saddle" that I've found and the text of "Peep Squirrel" is in the refrains for both songs. The refrain for "Whoa Mule:Saddle" is "Can't Get The Saddle On". The Mp3 tunes that I heard for those two songs sound very similar, but the tune for "Peep Squirrel" had a much faster tempo.

"Peep Squirrel" is described on the above cited website as a "play-party motion song; a game for chasing". It's possible that "Whoa Mule:Saddle" may have also been performed as a motion/chasing song. However, there are allusions to the performance of "Whoa Mule:Saddle" being risque. One hint of that is found in prefacing comments that the same Cerlina Lewis made in 1950 before she sang a version of "Whoa Mule:Saddle" that is included in folklorist Harold Courlander's Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 6: Ring Game Songs and Others Various Artists FW04474. Another hint of the risque nature of "Whoa Mule:Saddle"'s performance is found in another online quote which is found in Part II of this post.

Georgia Sea Isles folk singer Bessie Jones recorded a version of "Peep Squirrel" that includes lines from "Whoa Mule: Saddle". That version is given in Part II of this post.

Unfortunately, I've not been able to find any YouTube sound file or video versions of "Whoa Mule: Saddle" or "Peep Squirrel". If anyone knows of video or sound file versions of these songs, please post a comment below. Thank you in advance.

Example #1: 1:15 minute Mp3 sample
"Whoa Mule! Can't Get the Saddle On"
From the album Animal Folk Songs for Children by Mike, Peggy, Barbara & Penny Seeger
© 1992 Rounder

Whoa mule
Can't get the saddle on [repeat both lines 2x]

[using that same pattern]

Catch that mule

Ride that mule

Run mule
Can't get the saddle on [repeat both lines 4x]
My description: This is an uptempo, call & response song.

Example #2
Session with Celina Lewis, (a)Catch That Squirrel, (b)Sangar ee, (c) Whoa Mule, Can't Get the Saddle On, from Harold Courlander's Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 6: Ring Game Songs and Others Various Artists FW04474 1955

From Harold Courlander's notes:
“The singer was an old woman when these songs were recorded. She had a reputation of having been a fine and spirited singer when she was young."

[Text of "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)- Celina Lewis; Alabama, 1950]

All you church folks looking right at me, and they calI on me
to praise ... get up there!
Whoa, mule, can 'I get the saddle on, (2)
Stop that mule, I can 't get the saddle on, (2)
Whoa mule, I can't get the saddle on, (2)
Run mule, I can't get the saddle on, (2)
Can't you catch that mule, can't get the saddle on,
Catch that mule, can't get the saddle on, (4)
Yon go that mule, can't get the saddle on
My editorial comment:
I believe that "yon" is probably a clip of the word "yonder" (meaning "seen from a distance"). In more standard American English, that line would be given as "Yonder goes that mule" (I can see the mule in the distance.)

The "Go that mule" version of that line is the one used by Bessis Jones in the 1972 Step It Down (authors Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes). "Go that mule" is also the line for that song that was given by "an elderly informant" in Harold Courlander's 1963 book Negro Folk Music U.S.A. And that's the version of that line that most websites use. However, it's my opinion that "Go that mule" is an example of folk etymology. The "yon" word may have been dropped from that line because that wasn't the way that Bessie Jones and others learned it or the "yon" word may have been dropped because that word's meaning wasn't understood. Yet, "go that mule" doesn't make any sense in Standard American English or in African American Vernacular English, but hasn't stopped people from singing or, at least, from quoting that version of that line.

Both the Bessie Jones example & the example of this song that is quoted by Harold Courlander are presented in Part II of this series.

Click Lyr Req: Whoa Mule for several text versions of & comment about that song.

Click for a performance of this song by Andy Griffin.

Thanks to the unknown composers of this song. Thanks also to the folklorists who collected & recorded this song, and my thanks to Celina Lewis, Bessie Jones and others who sung this song.

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