Monday, January 30, 2012

Getting There: Mule Train

Tennessee Ernie Ford: Mule Train


Count Prince Miller: Mule Train


In 1949, America went "Mule Train" crazy. Now, more than 60 years later, it's not clear what drove that obsession. Maybe the song "Mule Train" was a metaphor, or perhaps it was just the beneficiary of old-west nostalgia or a clever PR campaign. It's not a particularly compelling piece -- it's largely a laundry list of dry goods being hauled by a mule-drawn convoy. There are some funny rhymes and wacky vocal gymnastics. But, that doesn't explain the "Mule Train" mania that gripped the nation.

Beginning in November 1949, a half dozen separate versions of "Mule Train" were recorded and charted in what was then called The Billboard. The magazine documented the craze in a series of articles. In the Nov. 5, 1949, issue, one such essay, titled "Scramble to Climb Aboard That Old Mule Train Turns Disk Biz Dizzy---But Good," proclaimed:

    This is the week which will be marked down in the annals of the music industry as "Mule Train" week…

    Furor started Monday when KLAC disk jockey Al Jarvis unveiled the Mercury Frankie Laine disking. Laine's platter brought out rival record men in force and within two hours Jarvis had been supplied with pressings of the RCA version by Vaughn Monroe (cut the previous night in Hollywood), and two Capitol interpretations, one with Gordon MacRae and second featuring hillbilly Tennessee Ernie…Disney Songs Inc., pubbers of the song, was flooded with calls from diskeries and others asking for dubs and lead sheets.

    Wednesday Decca latched onto the tune with a fast recording by Bing Crosby….Decca also owns the Buzz Butler hillbilly version…MGM also evaded the pop market on the opus by slicing it as a country item with Arthur Smith…

    In contrast to almost continuous play disks received when first launched, platter pilots went easy the latter part of the week. Several disk jockeys aired announcements saying "Mule Train" would "not be played today so that you don't tire of the song."

America tire of "Mule Train"? Don’t be crazy! The next issue of The Billboard continues panting:

    "Train" started a disk jockey feud which centered around veteran platter pilot Al Jarvis. Several rival jockeys, burned because Jarvis was first to air the Laine, Crosby and Monroe versions of the tune and benefit the most publicity wise, attacked the disk pilot on their shows, one going so far as to say that he would play only the Buzz Butler-Decca version of the tune. Jarvis struck back…condemning colleagues who boycotted any version of the song for personal reasons…

    [American Federation of Labor] delegates...assembled in San Jose to name Laine's version of "Train" as the union's official song…

Before the furor died down, America's platter pilots and labor leaders had still more versions to choose from, including takes by Woody Herman (with the Nat King Cole Trio vocalizing) and Spike Jones (the latter satirizing the song with a bit of now-offensive ethnic stereotyping called "Chinese Mule Train").

Here are two versions, the first my favorite version from that dizzying week in 1949, recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford. The second is from the early 1970s, when "Mule Train" inexplicably enjoyed new life as a minor reggae hit by Count Prince Miller.

(A side note: For anyone who enjoys music history, the half-century worth of full-text, fully searchable issues of (The) Billboard available for free on Google Books, is an amazing resource, and a great way to waste an afternoon. Get along!)

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