Back a number of years ago, I first read about where the Southern Cross the Dog in a Farm Bureau magazine quiz. I had never heard of it, and it was an intriguing story about the town of Moorhead and the junction of the old Southern Railway system and the “Yellow Dog”–commonly thought to mean the Yazoo Delta Railway. W. C. Handy wrote the song “Yellow Dog Rag” in 1914, and in 1919 renamed it “Yellow Dog Blues.” Handy’s inspiration for the song was the line “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog”, a refrain repeated three times by the guitar playing man at the Tutwiler depot. Handy said he composed the song as a sort of answer to Shelton Brook’s song “I wonder where my easy rider’s gone” and used the line. The song has been recorded a number of times, probably most famously by Bessie Smith in 1925 (or 1928 or 1929, depending on the source), and Louis Armstrong in 1954. In 2014, Studio 360 in conjunction with Public Radio International, Slate, and WNYC sponsored a cover version contest for the song. I include the links to the winner, and a couple of others that I liked at the end of the post.
The original Yazoo Delta railway line ran from Yazoo City, eventually to Tutwiler, crossing the Southern Railway line at Moorhead. The Yazoo Delta was begun in 1897, first to Ruleville, and in 1899 on up to Tutwiler. J. M. Lawrence of Sunflower was the secretary-treasurer of the new railroad (Enterprise-Tocsin, 15 Jan 1897, p. 2).
The Yazoo Delta was acquired by Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railway around 1903, possibly due to the annual deficits reported in 1898 (Natchez Democrat, 04 Aug 1898, p. 1) and in 1900 (Clarion-Ledger, 11 Oct 19, p. 8). Alan White (earlyblues.com) made the case that the ‘yellow dog’ referenced the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad line, rather than the Yazoo Delta because by 1903 (supposedly when Handy heard the line for the first time), the Y & MV was the crossing in Moorhead, as it was in 1914 when Handy wrote the “Yellow Dog Rag.”
Scholars also disagree with whether the reference to “Yellow Dog” is related to the Yazoo Delta line, the term “dog or short-dog” meaning a short railway line, or a reference to the “yellow dog contracts” where local lines had workers sign a contract agreeing not to join a union. Yellow dog was a derogatory term similar to the union term “scab.” The Southern, later acquired by the Illinois Central was a union company. C. H. Pond, credited with establishing the Yazoo Delta line from Moorhead to Ruleville in 1898, died in 1912.
Winner: Westy Reflector cover of Yellow Dog Blues. Of it, the judge Marc Anthony Thompson said “I just wanted something that I really liked to listen to.” Westy Reflector said “no one in the story is in a fixed place” and “blues was never fully about composition as an end, but about a rich community of shared source material.”
My faves: All of which, “I just really liked to listen to.”
Ari Swan cover of Yellow Dog Blues.
The City of Light cover of Yellow Dog Blues. I liked that he repeats the refrain ‘Southern cross the dog’ as did the original Handy heard.
Addieville featuring Sara Murphy cover of Yellow Dog Blues.