This Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Tutwiler, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi commemorates W.C. Handy’s first encounter with the Blues. It stands adjacent to the site of the now demolished train station where W.C. Handy first heard slide guitar being played, circa 1903.
The GPS location of this marker is: N34° 00.871′ W90° 25.919′
The front of this Mississippi Blues Trail marker reads:
“W.C. HANDY ENCOUNTERS THE BLUES
Bandleader W.C. Handy was waiting for a train here at the Tutwiler railway station circa 1903 when he heard a man playing slide guitar with a knife and singing ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’ Handy later published an adaptation of this song as ‘Yellow Dog Blues,’ and became known as the ‘father of the Blues’ after he based many of his popular orchestrations on the sounds he heard in Tutwiler.”
Here is YouTube post of Bessie Smith’s 1925 recording of W.C. Handy’s Yellow Dog Blues:
The photo below shows the site of Tutwiler’s former railway station (now demolished) as it appears now.
Here is the location of the W.C. Handy Encounters The Blues marker on Google Maps:
For blues historians, Tutwiler, Mississippi is probably best known as the place where W.C. Handy first discovered the blues, likely around 1903-1904, as he was waiting at Tutwiler’s railway station for a delayed train. At that time, Handy was managing a band based in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The photo above shows the site of the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station as it appears today. The train station has been demolished but the concrete pad on the left of the photograph is what remains of the foundation and floor of the Tutwiler train station.
Here’s how W.C. Handy described this encounter in his autobiography, Father of the Blues:
“The band which I found in Clarksdale and the nine-man orchestra which grew out of it did yeoman duty in the Delta. We played for affairs of every description. I came to know by heart every foot of the Delta, even from Clarksdale to Lambert on the Dog and Yazoo City. I could call every stop, water tower and pig path on the Peavine with my eyes closed. It all became a familiar, monotonous round. Then one night in Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start.
A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. As he played he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who use steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.
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. When the singer paused, I leaned over and asked him what the words meant. He rolled his eyes, showing a trace of mild amusement. Perhaps I should have known, but he didn’t mind explaining. At Moorhead the eastbound and the westbound met and crossed the north and southbound trains four times a day. This fellow was going where the Southern cross’ the Dog, and he didn’t care who knew it. He was simply singing about Moorhead as he waited.
That was not unusual. Southern Negroes sang about everything. Trains, steamboats, steam whistles, sledge hammers, fast women, mean bosses, stubborn mules – all become subjects for their songs. They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect, anything from a harmonica to a washboard.
In this way, and from these materials, they set the mood for what we now call blues…….”
This video of Booker “Bukka” White performing Poor Boy Long Way From Home in the 1960’s illustrates the slide guitar style W.C. Handy was describing.
This chance encounter at Tutwiler’s railway station sparked W.C. Handy’s interest in the blues. From that epiphany in Tutwiler, W.C. Handy changed his own musical direction to a course which led to his becoming one of the most influential figures in the history of American music.
Here’s a clip of Bessie Smith’s 1925 recording of W.C. Handy’s Yellow Dog Blues, in which Handy used the lyric “where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog,” inspired by his first encounter with the blues at the former railway station in Tutwiler, Mississippi.
Other Nearby Sites To See
Would you like to leave a comment or question about anything on this page?