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  • L Alan Reitano


Tutwiler, MS 2015


In 1905 the town of Tutwiler was incorporated along a new branch line of the Yazoo and Delta Railroad.

I.C. Railroad at Tutwiler, 1915

The Y & D Railroad, locally known as the “Yellow Dog,” ran between Moorhead, and the tiny town - named for Tom Tutwiler - the civil engineer who had built the rail line through the area in 1899.

]The year the town was incorporated, 1905, the Illinois Central built a rail yard in the area, putting Tutwiler on the map, as a regular stop on the way to Memphis, the nearest major city, seventy miles to the north.

Handy encounters the blues in Tutwiler
Handy encounters the blues in Tutwiler


Sometime around 1903 - a young black musician and orchestra conductor named William Christopher Handy was waiting for a train at Tutwiler station, when he encountered Henry Sloan, a man he described as “a lean loose-jointed Negro... plunking a guitar. His face,” Handy said, “had some of the sadness of the ages.”

Handy, who had spent several years traversing the delta documenting the music of the area, was immediately taken by Sloan’s song, which he deemed “the weirdest music (he) had ever heard.” He struck up a conversation, and Sloan taught him the song, “Where the Southern Cross The Dog,” about the crossroad of the Southern and the Y & D railroads in Morehead.

Handy recalled thinking if he could marry Henry Sloan’s melancholy, rough hewn music - what we now call the blues - with his conservatory trained musicians, he’d have something big.


Original Sheet music of The Memphis Blues - 1912
Original Sheet Music of The Memphis Blues 1912

Handy got that chance in 1909 when the campaign of Memphis mayoral candidate Edwin Crump reached out to Handy to compose a song in support of the Crump campaign. Most politicians hired bands to support the campaign, even write a song as a theme. It was the early twentieth century version of “Rock The Vote.”

Handy took this opportunity to try out the idea he’d had that day in Tutwiler.

The tune he wrote, using the twelve bar the form of a blues song, was titled simply “Mister Crump.” (Crump won by they way - soon becoming Boss Crump - and launching one of the most powerful political machines of the twentieth century.)


In 1912 Handy published the song under a new title, “The Memphis Blues,” and changed American culture and economics in the process.

James Reese Europe introduced the song to the popular dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle - at the time, the most famous couple in the nation.

Vernon & Irene Castle

The Castles taught America to dance, “from the waist down,” using the rhythm of “Memphis Blues” as the foundation of their newest dance craze - the fox trot.

“Memphis Blues,” and the Jazz Age it spawned, would soon migrate around the world as American boys went “Over There,” to fight the First World War.

Suddenly, American music and culture were the hottest commodity in the world.

Today U.S. culture, including music, movies, TV, and more... is the nations second largest export, outpaced only by aerospace in revenue, and agriculture in units exported. American copyright royalties generate over a trillion dollars a year, accounting for 6.5% of the nation’s GDP.

And, it all started with an idea, at a tiny train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi.


Tutwiler 2015
Tutwiler 2015

Unfortunately the little town that helped give rise to American music and culture, was left behind by the century she helped create. The Yazoo & Delta Railroad became part of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley, and eventually the Illinois Central. When the I.C. rail yard moved to Clarksdale in 1929 - the town quickly declined.

Tutwiler 2015

Today Tutwiler is a shadow of her former self, a gravestone marking the ephemerality of American life. Like any cemetery, you can regularly find visitors - including the occasional rock legend - pacing back and forth at the ruins of the old depot, breathing in the atmosphere of the place it all began, paying their respects to the 2.77 square mile patch of Mississippi delta, where at least part, of twentieth century American music was born.

Tutwiler 2015
Tutwiler 2015

Photo credits: Eric Cornell, L. Alan Reitano, Station Carbondale, Library of Congress



"Father of the Blues - an Autobiography," by W.C. Handy

"History of the Blues," by Francis Davis

"Nothin' But The Blues," by Lawrence Cohn

"W.C. Handy - The Life and Times of the Man Who Made The Blues," by David Robertson


David M Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library -Duke University


Independent Film and Television Alliance

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