WC Handy's formal musical education was spotty, but his ability was as natural as breathing. His autobiography, "Father of the Blues," cites some of his earliest musical inspirations as "whippoorwills, bats and hoot owls and their outlandish noises, the sounds of Cypress Creek washing on the fringes of the woodland, and the music of every songbird and all the symphonies of their unpremeditated art"
Another source of the musical training of this preacher's son from small-town Alabama was the Sunday services at his father's church, but dad disapproved of the guitar young William brought home one day, and forced him into organ lessons instead. The organ lasted just long enough for Handy to quickly master fluency with those little black dots we call written music, and when he quickly (and secretly) switched to cornet he had sufficient knowledge of European forms and methods to qualify as an educated musician.
During his youth he was pressured by parents, peers, and especially employers to adopt a more European-derived sound and repertoire, but Handy had a deep love of the spontaneous, indigenous music of his own people, and borrowed freely from both African-American and European sources, carefully documenting all of them. Despite disagreements with his father over his adult lifestyle, he remained deeply religious, and the sound of the church choir was never entirely absent from his music.
In 1903 at age 30, Handy was already a veteran of many minstrel shows, medicine shows, and the directorship of the band at a negro agricultural and mechanical college when he was offered the leadership of a dance orchestra, the Knights of Pythias, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and eagerly accepted. It was while waiting in a depot for an hours-late train to Clarksdale in the little Delta town of Tutwiler that the young, worldly, and sophisticated bandleader made the acquaintance of the music that would define the next three decades.
As he sat on a bench trying to nap, as Handy described it years later, a "lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept."
The man was obviously poor and dusty. One bony knee protruded through a hole in his threadbare pants, and his toes were peeking out the fronts of his worn shoes. His song was repetitive, with each line sung three times:
"I walked all the way from East St. Louis and didn't have but one thin, lousy dime."
"As he played," Handy wrote, "he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who use steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly."
"I'm 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. 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 east and west bound met and crossed the north and south bound trains four times a day. This fellow was going where the Southern railroad crossed the Yazoo Delta railroad, (nicknamed the 'Yellow Dog'), and he didn't care who knew it."
The lyrics would reappear in Handy's "Yellow Dog Blues," one of his earliest compositions to have the word "blues" in the title, although strictly speaking the song is not a blues, but a fox trot.
Ever since Miss Susie Johnson lost her jockey, Lee,
There's been much excitement, and more to be...
She's wonderin' where her easy rider's gone.
Dear Sue, your easy rider struck this burg today...
I seen him there and he was on the hog...
He's gone where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog.*
To get an idea of what Handy's itinerant guitarist sounded like, check out this YouTube video of Texas guitarist Mance Lipscomb playing "Jack of Diamonds" with a knife. (I'm grateful to the person who posted it, even though he carelessly misidentified the card's suit.)
The best-known version of "Yellow Dog Blues," Bessie Smith's, contains one mis-heard lyric. Handy wrote "Everywhere that Unce Sam has rural free delivery," but Bessie apparently didn't understand the line and sings "Everywhere that Uncle Sam is the ruler of delivery" instead.