A Century of Blues
Friday, May 09, 2014
William Christopher Handy was truly a self-made man. The son of ex-slaves, raised in a log cabin in Alabama, Handy went on to teach college and publish on Broadway. W.C. Handy was the first to publish a body of songs identified as blues, based on lyrics and melodies from black Southern culture, that became known throughout America. Two of his biggest hits, “St. Louis Blues” and “Yellow Dog Blues,” were published in 1914, making the year a turning point in the history of the blues.
In honor of the songs’ centennial, we have an assignment for listeners:
Take the classic “Yellow Dog Blues” and record your own version of the song. It can be in any style, with any instrumentation, as traditional or as radically different as you want to make it.
In his autobiography, Handy wrote that the inspiration for “Yellow Dog” came from a man playing guitar at a railroad station in Tutwiler, Mississippi:
As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. "Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog." The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind.
The Southern crossing the Dog referred to an intersection of train lines in Moorhead, Mississippi: the Southern Railroad and the Yazoo Delta, nicknamed “Yellow Dog.” (Workers on a rival train line may have given it the nickname, dismissing it as a “short dog” or minor line.) Handy put the line together with an inspiration from “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” by Shelton Brooks. In “Easy Rider,” a woman’s lover — a jockey called Lee — deserts her, and Handy’s song was a kind of sequel. It was originally published in 1914 as “Yellow Dog Rag,” then released in 1919 as “Yellow Dog Blues.” Sam Collins went on to record a version in 1927, Bessie Smith in 1929, Bill Broonzy in the 1930s, and Louis Armstrong in the 1960s. “Yellow Dog” was a gift that keeps on giving.