Handy, Tutwiler &
The Yellow Dog Blues
Sometime around 1903, a chance encounter, that would change American culture, occurred at the tiny railroad station that once stood along Front Street in Tutwiler, Mississippi.
All that’s left of that depot today is a small foundation, and some buried cross ties. The wooden structure burned in 1974, but a century ago, a regional railroad line called Yazoo & Delta – or Y&D traversed Mississippi Valley. The Y&D had acquired the nickname Yellow Dog, after its mustard yellow rolling stock, with the initials YD painted on the side.
Tutwiler was a railroad town. The Illinois Central had built a switch yard there in 1900, and the town itself was named for Tom Tutwiler – a civil engineer who’d built railroads all across the Mississippi delta, but the railroad isn’t what the town’s famous for today, because at that little train station on Hancock Street, one of the defining moments in American music occurred.
Tutwiler Station is where the blues began.
In his autobiography “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy tells the story of being stranded at Tutwiler, waiting for a train that was nine hours late. He was trying to grab a quick nap – when he was awakened by what he later called the “weirdest music he ever heard.”
He looked up to find what he described as “A lean loose-jointed negro” with ragged clothes, and a saddness of the ages on his face. He was using a knife for a slide, and according to Handy – “The effect was unforgettable.”
The song that itinerant musician played was “Goin’ Where the Southern Cross the Dog,” and though Handy had spent his much of spare time roaming the Mississippi delta documenting native folk music, nothing he’d ever heard struck him like this.
He approached the man – according to local legend a field hand named Henry Sloan – and asked about the song. Sloan explained that it was about the crossroad where the east and westbound Southern Railroad, met the north and southbound Yellow Dog, in nearby Morehead.
As they waited for the train – Sloan demonstrated how he got that haunting sound – by sliding the knife across the strings, flattening and bending notes.
Handy was intrigued by the music. As a trained musician though, he really couldn’t see the value in a song that repeated the same lyrics, and melody over and over again.
Not long after his encounter with Sloan, the Handy Band was playing a dance down the road in Cleveland, Mississippi, when the host came up and asked if some of the local boys could play a few tunes. Never one to pass up a paid break – the professionals headed out back for a smoke, as a crew of ragged sharecroppers, with beat up old instruments, took to the stage – and proceeded to make it rain.
The audience went wild for their rough, repetitive music. They began to dance and more importantly, they began to throw money. Handy quickly realized that these amateurs, had just made more in a couple of minutes, than his trained professionals had made the entire gig. Turns out there was value in this rough, repetitive folk music after all.
Handy instantly knew, if he could marry the moaning sounds of delta blues music with his legit musicians, he’d have something big.
That night – as Handy put it – an American composer was born.
In 1893, the National Conservatory of Music in New York, had hired the legendary Czech composer Antonin Dvorak to help establish a unique form of American composition. In one of his first press outings, Dvorak told Harpers Magazine that – in his opinion – a truly original American school of composition, could only emerge from the melodies of the African or Native American communities.
Whether or not he was aware of Dvorak’s proclamation, within a few days of that dance in Cleveland Mississippi – Handy had orchestrated several of these ‘local’ tunes, as he called them, for his nine piece ensemble, and with that – a completely unique genre of American music was born.
The Handy band quickly grew in popularity, and this rough, back country music was suddenly being requested at more respectable gigs as well as country dances.
In 1914, Handy would finally orchestrate his version of Yellow Dog Blues – the song Henry Sloan had taught him that night, waiting on the train. First though, he’d compose some enormous hits, using the blues techniques he acquired from Sloan, including the first blues song Mister Crump – which Handy later re-named Memphis Blues, and St Louis Blues, still today the best known blues song of all time, and it all started on a tiny train platform in Tutwiler, Mississippi.
Look below for more information, photos, a transcript, and directions. You’ll also find links to related stories, exhibits and suggested locations to explore on Sidewalk Museum.
You’ll even find links to some of the music related to this story, and please – take a moment and visit our gift shop.
You’ve been listening to the original Handy arrangement of “Yellow Dog Blues,” D’Vorak’s “New World Symphony” and “St Louis Blues” all performed by Jim Holthouser.
“Tutwiler, Handy & the Yellow Dog Blues” was written and produced by Alan Reitano.
This is Sidewalk Museum.
“Father of the Blues – An Autobiography”
W.C. Handy, Da Capo Press 1941
“The History of the Blues”
Francis Davis, Da Capo Press 1996
ADDRESS: 207 US 49, Tutwiler, MS 38963, USA