W. C. Handy: Yellow Dog Blues

Written by Elliott Hurwitt

Music Historian

In category: Song of the Day

Published October 17, 2018

W.C. Handy’s great “Yellow Dog Blues” incorporates an idea he picked up in the Mississippi Delta during his residencies in Clarksdale, Mississippi (1903-1905) then Memphis, his home base for endless gigs up through 1917.

“Yellow Dog” was written as a 1914 answer song to a 1913 hit by Handy’s friend Shelton Brooks entitled “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” (an “Easy Rider” was a gentleman caller or pimp depending on whose definition you prefer). In a wonderful mix of appreciation and appropriation, Handy takes the okay chorus (closer) of Brooks’s song–the closer always being the most memorable section–and re-uses Brooks’s best stuff as his verse. He’s got a much stronger chorus up his sleeve, a real Mississippi Delta lyric, and he springs that as his chorus.  In our NYFOS concert, listen for the thematic idea to travel from end of “Easy Rider” to opening of “Yellow Dog.”

This week we focus on recordings of Handy’s works dating from his own lifetime, and this is the oldest track in our set list, and like the first 3 in the series, up-tempo. The band is Ben’s Bad Boys; the performance incorporates an archaic laughing effect that made the earliest recordings of “Yellow Dog,” a decade before this one, extremely successful. The trombone laugh is a direct quote from those records. Why listen to this 1929 version?  Like most early “blues” recordings, it is up-temp, non-lugubrious. Then there’s the quality of this band: Glenn Miller on trombone, Jimmy McPartland on trumpet, and especially the clarinetist, a not-yet-famous Benny Goodman. His first feature has a bluesy smudged-note feel, over a “stop-time” accompaniment with a hint of that era’s dance craze, the Charleston.

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Elliott Hurwitt is a music historian with a background in classical music, now specializing in African-American music of the 1890s-1940s. His publications on W.C. Handy include the Dover edition (2012) of Handy’s seminal 1926 Blues, An Anthology, for which Elliott wrote a new introduction and re-edited the song selections to include songs that had come and gone between the 1926 version, Handy’s revised edition (1949) and the versions following his death (1972/1990).  Elliott also added historically important blues from 1912-1919 by Handy’s friends and rivals for the first time in the Anthology.  Elliott won the Barry Brook Dissertation Prize when he got his PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. He has appeared on NPR and Public Radio International, and is chief historical adviser on the new documentary Mister Handy’s Blues.  Elliott lives in New York City with his wife Elizabeth, Development Director of Music From Copland House.

Elliott is serving as the program consultant on the upcoming NYFOS program W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues on November 14, 2018 at Merkin Hall in NYC. Get your tickets today!


1 Comment

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    Thank you for this recommendation. I know the song only through Louis Armstrong’s recording (with lyrics).


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