Friday, November 24, 2017

Anything Worth Doing Can Be Done by Billy's Mule

The death of expertise, especially respect for science and knowledge generally, is one of the hallmarks of our current era. It's rooted in a strong current of anti-intellectualism that's part of our country's culture, but these days it's being stoked for political gain. 

One form it takes is lack of respect for and even resentment of education. I think this is mostly a white, Southern phenomenon that arose in South Carolina and spread first to the rest of the South and more recently to the so-called red parts of the country. (See this 2012 Alternet story that describes "how deeply undemocratic the Southern aristocracy these elites have always feared and opposed universal literacy, public schools and libraries, and a free press" and how it was first the case in South Carolina.)

This fear of learning is key in evangelical Christianity, where the only thing that needs to be known is the Bible and particular pastors' interpretations of it. Schools aren't meant to teach critical thinking; God forbid (literally).

Anyway. All of that bubbled up for me when I was listening to music on shuffle yesterday while preparing a salad for Thanksgiving dinner. Somewhere between Gil Scott-Heron and The Roches, or maybe between the Talking Heads and The Fifth Dimension, suddenly there was this folksy, happy-sounding song from The New Christy Minstrels:

Billy’s Mule

Billy's mule can tow the wagon. He can pull a plow.
He can figure 'rithmetic and milk a muley cow.
Don't need no education, ain't never been to school,
But anything worth doing can be done by Billy's mule.

1. I was on a date the other night with good old Sally Brown.
I took her to a dog fight on the other side of town.
I noticed when I kissed her she was acting kind of cool.
She said, "I get more pleasure out of kissing Billy's Mule."

2. There's a famous mule named Francis in the magazines I've read
I mentioned him to Billy's mule — this is what he said:
"He's mighty high-falutin' in them fancy picture shows,
But that's my younger brother, and I taught him all he knows."

3. A talent scout from Hollywood came into town one day.
He said, "I'll make you famous if you learn to sing and play."
But Billy's Mule just laughed and said, "I don't want to be a star.
But who do you think taught Elvis how to play the old guitar?"
Uh Huh Uh Huh

4. I get so mad when I draw my pay and all my money's spent,
I called up the White House and told the Pres-eye-dent:
"If you don't cut out this income tax, you ain't no friend of mine."
He said, "I'll speak to Billy's mule. He's on the other line."
The smugness is pretty obvious (Billy "don't need no education, ain't never been to school" — lines that are sung five times in the song, as the chorus repeats). The naturalization of what we would now recognize as a right-wing viewpoint ("all my money's spent" on income taxes) is turned quickly into a joke about the stupidity of the president — who must be JFK, since the song is copyright 1962 — who has to rely on a mule for advice.

This 55-year-old song perfectly captures the attitude of Donald J. Trump and many of his followers.  So now we have Billy's Mule as president. And as we face climate change and all the forms of oppression humans can force onto each other, we're hampered by an unspoken belief that anything worth doing can be done by Billy's mule.


The irony, of course, is that Elvis didn't learn his guitar-playing from a mule. He learned it from copying black men and women.


"Billy's Mule" is one of the tall-tale songs on the album Tall Tales! Legends & Nonsense, recorded by the New Christy Minstrels and released in 1963. I grew up listening to it, and singing along.

The album also includes:
  • More humorous tall tales: "The Old Timer," "The Cat [Came Back]," "Down to Darby," "Treasury of Nonsense (The Barefoot Boy with Shoes on)"
  • Upbeat folk songs: "Beaucatcher Mountain" and "The Banjo"
  • Downbeat folk songs (generally about romantic death): "Julianne," "Whippoorwill," "Captain (What Shall I Do?)." This category of songs also includes two songs that are what I'd call sad Confederate romances, "In the Hills of Shiloh" and "Jimmy Grove and Barbara Ellen." "Shiloh," I've just learned from der google, is not a traditional folk song, but was actually written by Shel Silverstein! (That guy, what else did he do that we don't realize?) "Barbara Ellen," usually called "Barbara Allen," is much older than the Civil War, and has many variants, all of which kill the male love interest without war. The New Christy Minstrels' version doesn't mention the Civil War specifically, but it does refer to "the war"and in the context of the overall Southernness of the songs, I think it's a fair assumption, and I always understood it that way as a child.
  • A meant-to-be-humorous misogynist song called "Susianna" and an anti-hobo song called "Song of the Pious Itinerant (Hallelujah I’m a Bum)"
The Confederate romanticization, misogyny, and classism of the latter songs is jarring to me now, but  were naturalized as a child listener. But these songs live in my head, fused to my neurons by youthfulness and lack of experience.


Weird facts: the New Christy Minstrels line-up at times included Barry McGuire ("Eve of Destruction"), Gene Clark (later of the Byrds), actress Karen Black, Kenny Rogers, and Kim Carnes. Who knew?


"Billy's Mule" was written by Randy Sparks (aka Lloyd A. Sparks), who started the New Christy Minstrels. While born in Kansas, Sparks was raised in Oakland, California, and attended the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1950s. He was part of the white folk music revival in the 1950s before founding The New Christy Minstrels in the early 1960s.

The interweb appears to have no idea why Sparks chose to name his group after the performers who most popularized the black-face form of entertainment for white audiences. Was he clueless or in alignment with their racist values? Or both, as the songs on Tall Tales seem to indicate?


Here's an earlier post of mine that involved the original Christy Minstrels.

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