Timber (Jerry the Mule)

Originally Performed ByJosh White and Sam Gary
Appears On
VocalsTrey (lead); Mike, Page, Fish (backing)
Phish Debut1987-04-29
Last Played2023-10-15
Current Gap13
HistorianGrant Calof (That_Guy)
Last Update2024-01-27


From manic house-pets and nearly extinct reptilians, to road wary highway-dwellers, existential insects, culinary avians, nocturnal marsupials, questionably postured jungle cats, and weaponized porcine, few bands (if any) can boast as many songs about bizarre, charismatic creatures as everyone's favorite topically named musical foursome. Yet even amongst this vast lyrical menagerie, there’s only one animal distinguished enough to have multiple tunes devoted to it… the mule.

Not to be confused with that other tune about mules and their Freudian connection to UFO abductions, “Timber Ho!” (as it’s affectionately & commonly known) was actually the first of the mule-inspired tunes to earn its slot on the setlist. 

Written in the 1930s by the songwriting team of Josh White and Sam Gary, "Timber (Jerry the Mule)" was a traditional work song first recorded in 1940 by Josh White and his Carolinians. And while the song was originally composed as a team by the aforementioned duo, Josh White supplied both the vocals and guitar when it came time to record. 

Josh White “Timber (Jerry the Mule)”

“Timber (Jerry the Mule)” chronicles the amusing tale of a determined day worker and his ill-tempered mule and their repeated attempts to haul lumber for an unsympathetic boss (aka “The Man”). Like much of depression-era poetry and songwriting, the lyrics take a satirical approach to depicting the real struggle that real people endured to survive. 

Not long after its inception, “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” all but disappeared until 1952 when Harry Belafonte recorded “Jerry (This Timber Got to Roll)” and Josh White released “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” on his 1956 album. In the 1960s, renowned blues & folk artist, Odetta Holmes, re-recorded the song, but the tune began to fade into the musical ether where it might’ve been lost forever... were it not for one fateful night in 1987 (April 29th to be specific), when Phish debuted “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” at Nectar’s.

Phish “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” 

Phish played “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” fairly regularly until 1990, when the song was seemingly 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 on (07/03/95). And the Binghampton “Tweezer” -> “Timber” -> “Tweezer” from 12/14/95 is *fire*

On that particular Monday, the last of two incredible nights of music in North Fayston, VT, two lucky fans near the rail were holding a sign that read “Timber Ho!” During set-break, the band decided to grant their request and played the song for the first time in 258 shows. And with the crowd’s jaws still on the floor and the earth still quaking beneath them, the band proceeded to kick things into the stratosphere when they reprised “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” during an extended tease in the "Bowie" intro that immediately followed

Along with its re-entry into Phish’s ever-growing musical arsenal, came the years-long debate as to the correct title of the song. The true name of the tune is in fact, “Timber (Jerry the Mule)”, but only the most orthodox of fans (and phish.net) use its true moniker. It’s typically identified as “Timber (Ho!),” due to the song’s chorus, but also gets written as "Timber" for the sake of brevity  - not to be confused with “Timber” from the ‘Thrilling, Chilling’ Halloween set on 10/31/14, which was only played that night.

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, debate, and concern ceases to matter when those first few notes echo into the sky.

Phish “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” –12/9/95, Albany, NY. Video by silverchair97

Despite its folk music roots, Phish puts their own undeniable spin on “Timber (Jerry the Mule)”, 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 to a mind-numbing jam (07/26/97 comes highly recommended). There are countless 1.0 versions worth seeking out, like 02/07/89, 06/16/90, 11/11/96, 11/28/98, 07/17/99, 07/14/00 and 09/30/00 (the final 1.0 appearance) to name just a few.

Then came a little year called 2003… An action hero became a politician, the iTunes store opened its digital doors, a self-proclaimed magician suspended himself in a glass box over the Thames... and Phish knew it was time for the song’s 2.0 debut.

If you haven’t heard 07/29/03: 1. Stop reading. 2. Download immediately. 3. Listen immersively. 4. Surrender to the flow. The mind-scrambling sleeper show of ’03 summer tour, that night at Star Lake also features a handful of notable post-hiatus bust-outs. The song reared its mule-eared head in Set I on 04/15/04 in Vega$ and later appeared in Set II on 06/24/04 in Indiana and 08/11/04 in Massachusetts... but then everything went quiet.

Cut to: Jones Beach five years later, when “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” entered the next era on 06/02/09. A launching pad for ethereal jams in previous eras, “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” became more of Set I tune during 3.0 (see 07/26/13 from the Gorge, 10/25/14 in Chula Vista, 01/16/16 in Mexico, 07/21/17 at MSG, 07/28/18 in Los Angeles and 12/01/19 in New York) but also wove its way into Set II on a handful of occasions (ie: 08/18/2010 at Jones Beach and 08/17/11 in Chicago). 

Phish “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” 7/14/19, East Troy, WI

“Timber (Jerry the Mule)” gracefully re-emerged from hibernation on 09/03/21 at DSG.  And the song continues its roll into Set I-- like 06/04/22 in Indiana, 07/22/22 in New York, 04/19/23 in Berkeley, and 10/15/23 in Chicago-- Even opening Set II on 07/18/23 in North Carolina.

Last significant update: 12/19/2023

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