Sunday, March 17, 2013

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

Edited by Azizi Powell

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

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

Click for Part I of this series.

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 (given as Example #1) includes this Mp3 sample:

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

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

(The numbers assigned to these examples continue from Part I of this series).

Example #3:
From Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes Step It Down, Games, Plays, Songs & Stories from the Afro-American Heritage University of Georgia Press, 1972; p. 214.

Peep Squirrel
Ya di da di deedy dum

Peep Squirrel
Ya di da di deedy dum

Hop Squirrel
Ya di da di deedy dum

(each line is repeated as above)

Run Squirrel

Come here, mule.

Whoa, mule
I can’t get the saddle on.

Hold that mule,
I can’t get the saddle on.

Go that mule
I can’t get the saddle on.

Go that mule
Ya di da di deedy dum, a
Ya di da di deedy dum, dum!
Comment written by Bess Lomax Hawes:
“You can sing “Peep Squirrel” while the children dance, or while you’re bouncing a child on your knees; or at a slower pace, it makes a fine song for a tired baby and a warm lap and a rocking chair. Mrs. Jones said that the “Ya di da di deedy dum” is the sound of the squirrel’s feet scuffling in the leaves"...
The Cd Put Your Hand on Your Hip and Let Your Backbone Slip includes a recording of Bessie Jones singing "Peep Squirrel".

The length of that song is given as 2:32.

A 30 second mp3 sample is provided on that website. That sample is a recording of Bessie Jones explaining why the mule is including in the "Peep Squirrel" song. My summary of her comments is that a man trying to get a mule to catch a squirrel, but he’s too little to put the saddle on the mule and the saddle was too heavy.

In my opinion, the words to "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)" were combined with "Peep Squirrel" because those two songs are have very similar lyric patterns, if not the same or similar tunes & tempos. My comparison of the lyric pattern of those two songs is found in Part I of this series.

Example #4
From Harold Courlander Negro Folk Music U.S.A, Courier Dover Publications, 1963, p. 160 [Google Books]

Whoa Mule Can’t Get The Saddle On
“One song taken from an elderly informant was described as “as real grown up playparty”. Other than that it was “a kind of wild game that could get you thrown out of church”, no no information was given about the activity that accompanied the song.

Whoa mule Can’t Get The Saddle On (2x)
Stop that mule Can’t Get The Saddle On (2x)
Whoa mule Can’t Get The Saddle On(2x)
Run mule Can’t Get The Saddle On (2x)
Catch that mule Can’t Get The Saddle On (4x)
You go that mule Can’t Get The Saddle On
Go that mule Can’t Get The Saddle On
My speculation about the risque nature of the performance of "Whoa Mule: Saddle" is given in the Addendum below.

Example #5: Margaret McKee Beale Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black America's Main Street, p. 189 [Google Books]

[My summary of this excerpt is that an African American Bluesman talks about the way that enslaved Black people used songs during slavery to express feelings that the couldn't openly express, and to make coded comments about their treatment by White people & about their oppressive living conditions.]

“I’ll tell you why the blues come about. It’s an expression that a person have –he want to tell you something, and he can’t tell you in his words, he’ll sing it to you. See back in-well, I’ll just bring it right out plain where anybody can see it, in olden days, if a white man do a colored man wrong, he couldn’t tell him he was wrong. He’d go off on a mule or something, and sing back to that man, the blues, like, singing it to him. That’s the way a plenty of them songs come up.

Take my daddy. When he playing his fiddle in the slavery time, he wouldn’t want to play, but he had to play. So he’d go along and make things up and holler it out in the fields where the old boss man could hear him, just singing away. Now that’s what he meant – he’s tired of playing nearly every night and then working in the daytime.
[Asked for an example, he sang]

“Hey Liza, little Liza Jane.
Oh Liza, little Liza Jane,
Can’t get the saddle on the ole gray mule
Can’t get the saddle on the ole gray mule.
Whoa, whoa, mule, can’t get the saddle on the ole gray mule.

He’s saying that the white man done worked him so ‘til he can’t even put a saddle on the ole gray mule.* That’s what he’s talkin about.
Chicken in the bread pan
Pickin at the dough
When he gets through picking
He stratch for more.

That’s what they be singing to the white folks what wasn’t giving ‘em enough to eat. Yeah, in slavery time. All them things come out of slavery time. All that happened in them days."
*I think that some words are implied in this sentence. With those words, the sentence would read “...done worked him so hard ‘til he can’t [even] get the saddle on the ole gray mule."

"Get the saddle on" means "to put the saddle on" (the mule).

On another page of this book the man speaking indicates that his father carried his fiddle to the fields. I believe that the implication is that his father was required to play the fiddle during the night for the White master’s entertainment, and then also required to play the fiddle during the day to help pace the work of other field hands.

Example #2 (in Part I of this series) and Example #4 (above) allude to risque performance activity being associated with the e song "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)". And example #4 indicates that adults sang this song and -if the "wild" behavior that accompanied that song were known- it would get them thrown out of the church. It seems likely that that performance activity verged on sexualized horse play. I wonder if the adults did piggyback rides when they sung "Ride the mule". Unless there is more documentation out there, we'll never know what was so risque about the movements that are done while singing that song that before singing her version (Example #2) Celina Hall had to basically tell church people to mind their own business.

I don't think that "Whoa Mule. Can't Get The Saddle On" is still being played (by children or adults). However, I'm intrigued by the possibility that the circle game song "Here We Go Ride That Pony" may be an updated version of "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On". I'm not sayind that the performance activity of "Whoa Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)" was exactly the same as "Ride That Pony". My guess is that the performance activity for "Who Mule (Can't Get The Saddle On)" was probably much more raunchy.

Here's a text version of that game song (which is also played by children & adults)

Here we go! (Ride that pony)
Ride around! (It's a big fat pony!)
Here we go! (Ride that pony)
This is how we do it:
Front to front to front, my baby!
Back to back to back, my baby!
Side to side to side, my baby!

((Repeat until your hands fall off))
-AttheCircus (Webster Groves High School, Colorado Springs, Colorado)

Here's the video of that song:

Ride That Pony

AttheCircus, Uploaded on Apr 20, 2008

The Webster Groves High School choir students play a long game of Ride that Pony in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs on April 18, 2008.
Notice the one girl riding "piggybank" on the man's back.
[Revised 11/7/2014]
The lyrics to "Ride That Pony" is composed in the standard "call and response" pattern. A contributor to urban dictionary sent in a good description of "Ride That Pony". I quote most of that description below, although I'm doubtful of her or his conclusion about how this game originated (according to that contributor the gamee was "conceived by a group of thespians in a summer acting camp at UC Berkeley"- no date was given. Perhaps those UC Berkeley acting students created "Ride That Pony" from a previously existing game -such as "Whoa Mule". But, it would be nice if some documentation had been given to support that statement about where this game came from. Also, that urban dictionary contributor describes "Ride The Pony" as being played in a small circle within a larger circle. However, in almost all videos that I've seen of "Ride The Pony", that gamee groups play this game in just one circle.

I also disagree with that contributor's statement that the "Ride That Pony" game is a sexual act. The phrase "ride the pony" can have that meaning in vernacular English. But, while some people may consider the dancing within that game to be raunchy ("nasty"), I believe that it would be wrong to think that people playing this game believe that they are imitating the sex act. That said, that reaction to "Ride That Pony" is the same or similar to the reactions to the old African American game "Whoa Mule. I Can't Get The Saddle On"-and probably for the same reasons. That's why I wouldn't be at all surpised to learn that "Ride The Pony" is an updated version of "Whoa Mule...".

here's the above mentioned urban dictionary description of the "Ride That Pony" game:
Source: Vodka,,December 07, 2004

"Ride That Pony
Energetic dance-game... . Involves an outer circle of 25-30 people and an inner circle of about 10 people. The dance is started with the counter-clockwise movement of the inner circle, and the singing or yelling of the following lyrics:

Ride that pony, ride around
That big fat pony
Ride that pony
This is how we do it!"

Following these lyrics the people in the inner circle move to the nearest person on the outer circle and perform a dance facing the person, facing away from the person, and then to the side of the person (sometimes similer to freaking). The lyrics for this part of the dance are as follows:

"Front to front to front, my baby
Back to back to back, my baby,
Side to side to side, my baby,

Then the person who has recieved the dance proceeds to the inner circle and restarts the game//dance/"*[the game immediateel yarestarts gaa....
*I think that contributor meant that the person who exchanged places with the former middle person begins to trot around the circle and the group begins singng that song again.

Alternative lyrics to "Ride The Pony" are:
Ride, Ride the big fat pony [3x]
This is how we do it.
I've also seen videos of more than one person in the middle of the circle. But I think that is a modification of the game that some people have done to enable more group members to have a turn in the center in an allotted amount of time.

Thanks to the unknown composers of this song. Thanks also to the folklorists who collected & recorded this song, and my thanks to the authors who are quoted, their informants, and all those who have recorded this song and/or been recorded singing this song.

Thanks also to the group featured performing the game song "Ride That Pony", and thanks to the uploader of that video.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Viewer comments are welcome.

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