Southern Crossing Inspires Blues Tunes, Delta Tales
By Steve Alderman for the Greenwood Commonwealth 1987
MOORHEAD — Just mention the town's name to an outsider and you'll get quite a reaction.
Your likely to get any one of several responses. The most likely being: Where, or what, is Moorhead?"
All Aboard! Midnight Special
A town with only one traffic light and a population of about 2,300 would seem to have anyone asking such a question. However, this little Delta town is known among very elite circles. It is one of the few places in the world where two separate railroads cross at a 90 degree angle.
The crossing, referred to by locals as "where the Southern crosses the Dog," has been the subject of numerous songs, poems and paintings. It has been mentioned in literary works by such authors as Eudora Welty Delta Wedding i and Roark Bradford John Henry. It is now recognized as a historical site by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
The fabled crossing was created in 1898 when Chester Pond, founder of the town. built a railroad running 20 miles north to Ruleville to serve agricultural lands throughout the north Delta. Called the Yazoo Delta line, its initials were later
colloquialized into the more familiar "Yellow
AS THE railroad became more profitable, the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad bought it in 1900 and extended the track northward to Tutwiler and south to Belzoni. It was later purchased by the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, which closed the line in 1979. Although the track is now closed to all rail traffic, 150 yards of the track, running north and south, were donated to the town of Moorhead.
The Southern Railroad, which "crosses the 'Dog," was later purchased by the Columbus and Greenville Railroad. The C & G still operates on the line today.
In the early 1900s, Moorhead was a bustling rail center. Every day, ten passenger trains passed through its two stations. Today, the town is known for little more than the location of Mississippi Delta Junior College. Anice Powell, director of the Sunflower County Library and a native of Moorhead. remembers the activity brought by the railroads. Her family lived near the Yazoo-Delta railway trestle just south of town.
"I CAN REMEMBER the hobos used to camp under the [Moorhead Bayou] trestle. They would always come up to the house asking for food, offering to chop food or milk the cow in return," she said. When there wasn't much to do, mama would always feed them anyway." While many published accounts tell the story of the famous crossing, some records were lost in 1902 when a herd of wild goats climbed to the second story of a local store building eating the historical records that were kept there.
Around the turn of the century, many black musicians were finding inspiration for their "blues" music by interpreting the -heart and soul" of the Mississippi Delta. It was then that Clarksdale blues musician W.C. Handy wrote perhaps the most famous song about the crossing.
While waiting for a train one night in 1903, Handy explained how he learned of the story of the -Yellow Dog" crossing. He said "a lean, loose-jointed negro commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I was trying to sleep. His clothes were rags and his toes peeped out of his shoes. As he played `Goin where the Southern cross the 'Dog, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar much like Hawaiians used steel bars on their guitars. The effect was unforgettable. His song struck me instantly."
HANDY DIED in 1958. His version of the "Yellow Dog Blues" sold more than a million records.
Another song written in reference to the Yazoo-Delta (Yellow Dog) line was Johnny Rivers' rendition of "Midnight Special." The song was borne out of a legend held among prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
Every fifth Sunday at Parchman was visiting day. Prisoners' wives and sweethearts from the southern and central parts of the state would gather at Jackson on Saturday night for a special train which left at midnight in order to reach Parchman by dawn.
According to the tale, the first prisoner to be touched by the light of the approaching train, would be next in line for a pardon.
In 1965, the crossing was painted by Memphis artist Carroll Cloar. He decided to do the painting, entitled “Where the Southern Cross the Dog,” while perusing a book on “Country Blues.”
ACCORDING TO Cloar, he misunderstood the meaning of the name of the crossing at first until he realized the dialect frequently used "cross" for “crosses." Hence, the name in the song “Where the Southern Cross the Dog” also became the name of Cloar’s painting.
The town of Moorhead now commemorates the immortal crossing with their annual "Yellow Dog Festival." The festival, which at-tracts thousands from all over the Delta, is a paragon of the small town celebration. Arts and Crafts, crawfish boils, catfish fries and bluegrass music combine to create an atmosphere that borders on pandemonium.
Not bad for a town with only one traffic light.