William Christopher Handy is known as the father of the blues. Some who might disagree with that title would still have to admit that he’s had a great influence on American music. Though Handy is probably most famous for Saint Louis Blues, my favorite is his Yellow Dog Blues.
It all started with a vaudeville song written by Sheldon Brooks in 1913 called I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone? Sophie Tucker, known as ‘The Last of the Red Hot Mommas,” popularized it. Famous for her double entendres, this was the perfect song for her, with “easy rider” being both a term for an expert horseman or someone expert in sex. The lyrics tell the story of a woman named Susie Johnson who gives her money to Jockey Lee to bet on a horse. He runs off with the cash and leaves poor Sue wondering where “…my easy rider’s gone.” Mae West, also know for double entendres, sang it in a vaudeville style 20 years later in her film “She Done Him Wrong.”
In 1914, W.C. Handy answered Sue’s question, first as Yellow Dog Rag, and later changed to Yellow Dog Blues. He tells us where easy rider Jockey Lee went with her money. It starts with lots of excitement and Sue moaning about where he’s gone. Then she gets a letter from a friend in Tennessee saying,
“Dear Sue, your easy rider struck this burg today
On a southbound rattler, side door Pullman car
Seen him here an’ he was on the hog,”
He had arrived by train with plenty of money, most probably Sue’s. The letter ends telling Sue where he is. “He’s gone where the Southern cross’ the Yellow Dog.” That’s Moorhead, Mississippi where the Southern Railroad intersects with the Yazoo Delta Railroad or YD, nicknamed “Yellow Dog.” Handy relayed in his autobiography that this blues line came from a man singing and playing guitar who he heard while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi, back at the beginning of the century.
Handy and his Memphis Blues Band recorded an instrumental version of Yellow Dog Blues in 1922. This was followed with vocals by Bessie Smith in 1925, Big Bill Broonzy in the 1930s, Louis Armstrong in the 1950s and many others. Ertha Kitt sang it in “St. Louis Blues,” the 1958 film about W.C. Handy’s life staring Nat King Cole. There’s an excellent and very respectful recent version that was recorded right on Royal Street in New Orleans by Tuba Skinny with Erika Lewis doing the vocal.
One of my favorite recordings is by Joe Darensbourg and His Dixie Flyers from 1958. It was popular on top forty radio and I still have my older sisters’ well-played Lark 45 rpm record. I remember them being mad as hell when it was banned from the local church dance. The priest and chaperones in charge felt it was too suggestive and led to lewd dancing. Keep in mind that Darensbourg’s version is an instrumental so no risqué lyrics or double entendres. Well, that just goes to show you the power of the Blues. Thank you, W.C. Handy.
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the museum published Robert Iulo’s nonfiction in Issue Three.
To read “Old Saint Patrick’s: A Meditation,” click here.