"Where the Southern Crosses the Yellow Dog"
by William Bamberger
October 19, 2013 will mark the 25th anniversary of the death of the great bluesman Son House. In recognition of this, I'd like to offer a few (very) personal notes about having been a House fan for the past 45 years.
THE LAST TIME I saw Son House perform was Tax Day, April 15, of 1972. This was at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The auditorium had opened only six months earlier. It is a place of contradictions: elegant, but with much of its structure being bare concrete pillars eight feet in diameter. It had opened with the premier of a bound-for-Broadway musical, The Grass Harp, music by Claibe Richardson, book and lyrics by Kenward Elmslie (who, for my money, is now America's greatest living poet). The Power Center had already hosted several blues concerts--swiftly becoming one of the premier venues of Ann Arbor cultural life (thirty-five years later my daughter would dance on this same stage).
The 1972 concert also featured the steady and light-hearted Mance Lipscomb as well as the spooky and intense Robert Pete Williams. House was the headliner. I sat in the overly plush seats, listening with the woman who would seven years later become my first wife, who had first taken me to a store--less than half a mile from where we now sat--where I could buy country blues LPs, and who enjoyed the music as much as I did. Her 21st birthday was just four days away, and this was concert was one of her presents.
We had seen House before: at the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969, he had been the final performer on the final night. This afternoon he looked much the same, was dressed the same, and performed pretty much the same program: "Preaching Blues," "Death Letter Blues," finishing (if memory serves) on his feet, clapping, shouting out an a capella "John the Revelator":God came down in the cool of the day Called Adam by his name Adam refused to answer Because he was naked and ashamed Tell me, who's that writing? John the Revelator, Wrote the Book of the Seven Seals. . . .House was 70 at the time (only a few years older than I am now), and it had been announced that this would be his last tour. He was very frail-looking, and his uncertain balance and slurred words suggested a touch of drunkenness. But his voice was strong, his intensity almost overpowering. The crowd responded enthusiastically. If this was to be his final tour, he was making it a triumphal exit.
After the concert ended, we were walking through the warm evening air down a gentle incline, headed for the Renault when I suddenly, without warning, began crying. Terrible heaving sobs. I stepped off the sidewalk and under a very small tree. I had never before been prompted to tears by a concert (and it has happened only once more, more than thirty years later, as I sat watching Brian Wilson struggle through a performance of Smile), and I couldn't understand why this was happening to me. My companion touched my shoulder and tried to comfort me. "I know he's old," she said, "and you love his music. It's OK."
But it didn't seem that simple to me, and still doesn't. It was watching him struggle against his frailty, against, so it appeared to us, drunkenness, and who knew what more to rise up into his shouted song about revelation, about a promise. It had nothing to do with religion, but it was in part was due to his insistence that he could rise to the occasion and still capture the spirit. But there was more.
Conventional, neat histories of the blues tend to begin with W. C. Handy (part musician, part P.T. Barnum-style self-promoter) hearing a black singer singing about "Where the Southern Crosses the Yellow Dog" in 1903. This inspired Handy to "write" (some say plagiarize) his "Yellow Dog Rag," which began the process of introducing blues scales and rhythms to a wider audience.
The railroads in those lyrics were the Southern Line and the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Line; the first ran east to west, and the second north to south. The tracks crossed at Moorhead, Mississippi; the perpendicular-travelling trains crossed there four times a day. The line crops up in recordings by number of singers, including Charlie Patton and Big Bill Broonzy, but what some believe is the only recording of the original form of the "Yellow Dog Blues" was recorded by Sam Collins in 1927:Be easy mama, don't you fade away, Be easy mama, don't you fade away. I'm going where that Southern cross the Yellow DogWhy did this intersection inspire Mississippi blues singers to include it in their songs? There is a definite poetry in the sound of the words, but I believe there is more. The crossing of the Southern and the Yellow Dog meant someone hopping a train there could go east or west, north or south, go in any direction. Where the Southern crossed the Yellow Dog was a point of almost unlimited possibility.
And this, I believe, is what prompted the episode after the Son House concert. Encountering the country blues at 17, I was swept up by the possibilities of what music could be, where it might lead me, both physically and mentally. A great deal of what I have become in my life springs from that experience. Seeing Son House, almost the last of the men and women who created that music, who, when my life intersected theirs (if at the comfortable remove of an LP played in my room) made me understand that there was a great deal of "other" in the world, "other" that I might be able to learn from and add parts of to my own life. And House has remained with me ever since, in ways both private and public: Only last year I sang, for the first time, an a capella "John the Revelator" at an open mic night at my daughter's behest--through no coercion on my part, she too has become a fan of House's music.
Watching Son House struggling to finish "John the Revelator" that night in 1972 was in part a reminder of the importance of never giving up, of stubbornly continuing along the tracks I had chosen for myself. To such a melodramatic, clichéd--and absolutely sincere--musical message, the only proper answer was the melodramatic, clichéd, sincere one of tears and gratitude, naked and not ashamed.
Note: This essay, in a somewhat different form, is included in my From Fret Rattle to Underwater Skylabs: Essays on Music and Musicians (Borgo Press, 2013).
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