Where the Southern Cross the Dog

This spot is deep at the roots of blues history, though most people have never heard of it.

The blues had to come from somewhere. Musically, you can trace the influences, but when did the blues actually become the blues? And where did they surface as the blues? Most people would say sometime around the turn of the century, in the Mississippi Delta.

From there, the seeds blew out all over and fertilized music scenes everywhere, from Chicago and New York to England and South Africa, even Japan and China.

W.C. Handy was stuck for too many hours one day in 1903 (or so) at the train depot in Tutwiler, in the northern part of the Delta, and he overheard another guy singing a song about "going where the Southern cross the Dog." Handy (who lived in Clarksdale) had never heard harmonies like this. This is the first documented use of blues harmonies. (What's more, the guy was playing guitar using the back of a knife as a slide--first slide guitar ever to make it into the history books.)

The blues had been forming in a rich stew of influences up and down the Delta. This was their first contact with someone who wrote it down.

Ken is down with it

So what does it mean, "where the Southern cross the Dog?" Ken's pointing at it right here.

The Southern was a railroad. It was later bought by the Illinois Central. (The fabled City of New Orleans ran on Southern rails, and for many in the Delta those rails were the road out of poverty, heading north to Chicago--spreading the blues along the way.)

Another railroad, the Yazoo Delta, was more popularly known as the Yellow Dog.

The Southern tracks crossed the Yazoo Delta railroad in Moorhead, MS.

Ken points it out

That's "where the Southern cross the Dog."

crossing with water tower

The site has been preserved, even though the Yazoo Delta rails today end about 50 yards in either direction from the old-fashioned crossing. (Railroads don't use crossings like this anymore; they're very dangerous, as you might guess.) The Southern rails are still in use, and we saw train cars being moved back and forth while we were there.

Ziploc bag

We were told there would be a historical market to indicate the spot. We drove up and down (story of our lives) without seeing the sign. Finally we found the crossing on our own. Later on, we ran across the post that used to hold the sign. There was a note in a Ziploc bag tied to the post, explaining that the sign had been removed for refurbishing. (Click on the picture above to see the note.)

Simple directions for finding the crossing: It's about 75 feet from the Moorhead, MS, post office. If you find the post office, you can see the crossing from there (it's just past the gazebo).

Still crossing the Dog

(Click on the picture for a bigger version.)

Or you can just follow Highway 3 south from the 82 until you hit tracks. The tracks that cross the road here are the old Southern, as you'll see from the names of the streets running on either side of the tracks (N. and S. Southern Ave.). The signpost with the missing sign is just south of the tracks, on the right as you cross them.

At the intersection of Highway 3 and the tracks is the Yellow Dog Cafe, where you should be able to find someone who can point you toward the crossing, about 100 yards away--between the historical marker and the water tower you see in the distance.

Additional note from an attentive reader, Joe Wilson at the Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead:

Date: 8/16/2000 3:01 PM
From: jwilson at mdcc.cc.ms.us


Enjoyed your info on the spot where the "Southern crosses the Yellow Dog". But, It's the Illinois Central (the old Southern) railroad, running north and south that no longer exist. The Yellow Dog, now the C&G, or Columbus & Greenville railroad is still in use.

A little more background.

The Yellow Dog or Yazoo/Delta (YD) Railroad got its nickname from one of two sources, or both, historians aren't sure.

First, either the YD locomotive or the box cars, or both, were painted yellow, hence The Yellow Dog. Another story tells of someone's old yellow dog that used to chase the YD through town barking at the wheels.

Take your pick.

One thing that's certain. At one time it was a pretty famous junction with as many as six trains a day meeting there with their cattle catchers touching. An oft repeated story from WWII veterans says that if someone from Mississippi, especially the Delta, went into a large gathering of soldiers and wanted to see if there were any home folks around they would simply holler out "Does anyone know where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog?" an affirmative answer would usually produce a kindred soul.

The history of Moorhead is very fascinating and not what most would expect. It was founded by Chester Pond, a pretty liberal fellow for his time, who built several factories and the first stretch of what would become the Southern Railroad. He built houses for his workers and invited them to stay rent free as
long as they remained sober and gave an honest day's work. He also built one of the first, if not the first, school for black girls in the state.

Much of this was taken from the History of Sunflower County "Fever, Floods, and Faith" by Marie Hemphill (I have a few photos in the book, brag) and many long discussions with the former, long time editor of the Indianola paper.

Just thought you might like to know.

Joe Wilson/Public Relations
Mississippi Delta Community College

Joe is right, of course, about which tracks are still in use—it’s the east-west tracks that still run, not the north-south tracks of the old Southern/Illinois Central.

But yet another attentive reader, this time one from England, provides a further discussion:

Date: December 5, 2014, 6:28:25 a.m. PST
From: Paul Clark <paulclark at clara.net>

I note that you indicated the Southern was still running but changed it after e-mail from Joe Wilson.
But I think Joe Wilson (strangely for a local) is wrong and you were right.

The old Southern is still running and the Yazoo Delta is gone.
I think the confusion is caused by the fact that the Southern (a railroad in the southern area) runs east-west and the Yazoo Delta ran north-south.

The current Moorhead road map clearly show N and S Southern Ave running east-west and E and W Delta Ave running north-south.
Also the YD ran between Tutwiler and Yazoo via Moorhead which was directly north-south.

Also note from wiki

“A historic plaque in Moorhead is located where the Southern Railroad once crossed the Yazoo Delta Railroad (known as the "Yellow Dog"). The Southern travelled east-west, and later became the Columbus and Greenville Railway, while the Yellow Dog travelled north-south, and later became the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad. The level junction (diamond) is still preserved as an historic site, though the north-south line has since been abandoned through Moorhead.”

I am afraid I have a long way to come (from England) to verify it.
I did the New Orleans – Memphis – Nashville trip in 2004 alas before I developed a much stronger interest in the blues.
Think I drove through the delta and missed it all.

Best regards
Paul Clark



Yellow Dog is a phrase that comes up in other places too:

  • If you check a good dictionary, you’ll see that a “yellow dog contract” in labor history is a contract that a worker signs where he agrees not to join a union. The implication here is that only a yellow dog would do such a thing to get employment.
  • “Yellow Dog“ is a mild pejorative from about the same period (yellow is itself an insult, from yellow journalism to the implication that someone who’s yellow is a coward; adding a dog to it rounds it out nicely).
  • I’ve also heard the phrase “yellow-dog Democrat,” which (forgive me if I get this not quite right) describes a person who, if the only candidates on a ballot were a Republican and a yellow dog, would vote for the dog.

Nicknaming the Yazoo Delta was probably a fond local amusement that had to do with all the usual things people grumble about: poor service, low wages, general incompetence, whatever.

Apparently the phrase “where the Southern cross the Dog” and the blues legend about the spot figure prominently in August Wilson’s play “The Piano Lesson.” I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you how they fit in. It’s supposed to be a good show, though.

Clarksdale . . . Highway 61 . . . Greenville . . . Moorhead . . . Yellow Dog Cafe . . . Greenwood

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