I know the Yellow Dog district like a book
Indeed, I know the route that Rider took;
Every cross’, tie, bayou, burg, and bog
Way down where the Southern cross’ the Dog
— W. C. Handy
Once upon a time, if you were a rail fan in the South or even a weary traveler sitting in a southern diner drinking a cup of coffee, somebody might come up and ask you if you knew where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog. If you answered, “Moorhead, Mississipi,” you were okay and belonged in the area. You were in better shape if you also knew the east-west tracks the Southern Railway (now Norfolk-Southern) and the north-south tracks of the Yazoo Delta Railroad (AKA “The Yellow Dog”) crossed each other about 75 feet from the town’s post office.
While Norfolk-Southern still uses that line, the dangerous, old-style diamond crossing is no longer active. However the site has been preserved, identified with a historical market that draws rail fans to it like a sacred pilgrimage.
The railroad crossing is part of legendary blues lore, the story being that in 1903, W. C. Handy heard a guitar player singing about that crossing in a musical style he’d never heard before. He was fascinated by it and subsequently wrote “The Yellow Dog Rag” based on this real or imagined blue player at a train depot. Other composers, including Sam Collins in 1927, have written and recorded yellow dog crossing songs. Blues fans can talk long into the night about where the first version came from.
As for “Yellow Dog,” I’ve seen four explanations of the reason that the name was applied to the Yazoo Delta Railroad: (a) “dog” often refers to a branch line, (b) the box cars were painted yellow, (c) somebody saw a yellow dog chasing the train every day, (d) railroad men on the line had to sign contracts with a yellow dog clause in them stating they wouldn’t join a union. All of these might be wrong, but they sound right enough for legends.
When it comes to song names, singers, lyrics, railroad crossings and blues recordings, it’s hard to tell the difference between facts and fictions because they all merge together in a dark bluesy way that just makes any good song and any good exaggeration about it all the better. So what I’m saying here is that this post may contain more fiction that fact, and that that’s a good thing.
I couldn’t resist mentioning the title of this song in my recent novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman” because it was too good to leave out.