Vocals: Trey (lead); Mike, Page, Fish (backing)
Original Artist: Josh White and Sam Gary
Historian: Grant Calof
Last Update: 2013-11-25
Whether it's manic house-pets, nearly extinct reptilians, road wary highway-dwellers, existential insects or a handful of other curious woodland creatures, few bands can boast as many songs about bizarre, charismatic animals as everyone's favorite topically named band (Phish). Yet even among this vast lyrical menagerie, there’s only one beastie distinguished enough to have not one, but two songs devoted to it… the Mule.
Granted, certain allotments of fans may be more familiar with a certain tune about mules and their disturbing Freudian connection to UFO abductions, but “Timber (Jerry)” was actually the first of the mule-inspired tunes to make its way on to the hallowed setlist. The song – also known as "Timber (Jerry the Mule)" – was written in the 1930’s by the songwriting team of Josh White and Sam Gary and received what was considered moderate airplay at the time. And while the song was originally composed as a team by the aforementioned duo, it was Josh White who supplied both the vocals and guitar work when it came time to record. Local legends claim that on hot summer nights somewhere below the Mason/Dixon Line, the ghosts of White and Gary can still be heard arguing over who played Garfunkel to whose Simon.
“Timber (Jerry)” chronicles the amusing tale of a determined man and his ill-tempered mule and their repeated attempts to haul lumber for an unsympathetic boss (you may know him as “The Man”). Like much of depression-era poetry and songwriting, the lyrics take a satirical approach to depicting the everyday struggle everyday people endured to survive. But not long after its inception, “Timber (Jerry)” disappeared into a vast sea of musical catalogues for the next thirty years. The song was later resurrected during the 1960s, when it was re-recorded by renowned blues & folk artist Odetta Holmes. After Holmes though, the song once again faded into the musical ether. And it might have been lost forever, were it not for one special night in April of 1987, when Phish debuted it in front of the fortunate audience at Nectar’s.
When it was first played, “Timber (Jerry)” was apt to show up in either the first or second set, but as the years wore on, it appeared almost entirely during the second, often serving as the opening song. Phish played it fairly regularly until 1990, when the song was inexplicably shelved for two years. After its one-time appearance on 12/30/92, the song once again eluded concertgoers for another three years, until the last night of the 1995 summer tour (7/3/95).
On that particular night, the last of two truly incredible nights of music in North Fayston, VT, two lucky fans near the rail were holding a sign that read “Timber Ho!” During the set-break, the band decided to grant them their request and played the song for the first time in 258 shows. With the crowd’s jaws still on the floor and the earth still quaking beneath them, the boys from Burlington kicked things into the stratosphere when they reprised “Timber (Jerry)” during an extended tease through the "Bowie" intro that immediately followed. Later, when questioned about the absence of the song for so many years, Mike Gordon claimed that the band never played the song because they apparently didn’t like their cover as much as the original version and felt that they “didn’t do it justice.” Nonetheless, after that summer, “Timber (Jerry)” finally became a regular, albeit sporadic, part of the Phish repertoire.
And with its entrance into Phish’s ever-growing musical arsenal, along with it came the years-long debate as to the correct title of the song. The true name of the song is in fact, “Timber (Jerry),” but only the most orthodox of fans identify it by its true moniker. It’s most commonly identified on setlists as “Timber (Ho!),” due to the song’s chorus but is also sometimes written as "Timber" for the sake of brevity. The style and overall feel of the song, as well as the sharp contrast between the lyrics and music often leads people to mistakenly identify the song as an original. But every question and every concern ceases to matter when those first few notes echo into the sky.
Despite its folk music roots, Phish puts their own undeniable ‘spin’ on “Timber (Jerry),” bringing a space age, otherworldly quality to it. The song can sometimes provide the springboard for an interesting set (check out the segue into “Mike’s” from the second set of 12/31/97), or the gateway into a mind-numbing jam (7/26/97 comes highly recommended). Other pre-hiatus versions that are worthy of mention are 2/7/89, 6/16/90, 11/11/96, 11/28/98, 7/17/99, 7/14/00 and 9/30/00 (the last pre-hiatus occurrence).
Then came a little year called 2003… An action hero became a politician, teenagers started eating fewer carbohydrates, a self-proclaimed magician suspended himself in a glass box over the Thames and Phish knew the time had come to bust out a little ditty called “Timber (Jerry)” on 7/29/03. If you haven’t heard 7/29/03, stop reading and immediately download it. The Pittsburgh show was without a doubt the mind-scrambling sleeper show of ’03 summer tour, and features a handful of other notable first-since hiatus bust-outs that should be on everyone’s absolutely-without a doubt-required listening list. "Timber (Jerry)" reared it's mule-eared head a few more times in 2004 (see 4/15/04 in Vega$ or 8/11/04 from Mansfield, MA) and much to everyone's thrill and delight re-entered the spotlight after five long years when it appeared midway through the first set at Jones Beach on 6/2/09. "Timber" remains alive and well in 2010, with an especially sinister version being played at the 6/24/10 Camden show.
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The history then goes on to say, “And it might have been lost forever, were it not for one special night in April of 1987, when Phish debuted it in front of the fortunate audience at Nectar’s.” Clicking the “one special night in April of 1987” link to view the setlist for 04/29/1987 you’ll find that Phish opened that show with “She Caught they Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride”.
I find it humorous that Grant points out that there are two Phish songs about mules and then links to a show which, in fact, contains a third Phish mule song.