Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Goin' Where the Southern Cross the Dog

A while back, I wrote a blog entitled: ‘The Boy She Left Behind.’ I explained how that phrase popped into my consciousness one day out of the blue. Its origin is less important than the mental picture it painted inside my head. The words and the images that it conjured up emitted a confusing cauldron of feelings and emotions. Words and phrases can do that sometimes especially to a writer who is always on the hunt for impactful vernacular tools to add to his arsenal.

Well, lightning struck a second time with another phrase I came across in a book about folk singers and folk songs. I realized I’ve had several blogs that have talked about the power behind words and phrases and how a writer can find meaning and imagery there. It’s like discovering new paint materials with which to create new works of art.

Two other blogs, ‘Vernacular warfare’ and ‘Phrases and stages’ covered the same topic. Words and phrases can cover a plethora of images. Sexual references like ‘wet’ and ‘hard’ paint a certain kind of picture. ‘Soft’ and ‘comforting’ paint another one entirely. The examples here can go on forever. They’re all part of the creative arsenal a writer uses to paint his story pictures in the minds of his readers.

But for me, it is the more iconic and historical phrases that I find the most fascinating. Folk music is the perfect conduit for painting these mental pictures. Down through the ages, based on some semblance of reality, words and phrases from folk songs have given us ‘Old Hannah,’ the Southern convicts name for the punishing sun. ‘Delia,’ the name given to a bad woman, a ‘rounder’ or a ‘gambler.’ Like ‘John Hardy’ she was based on real life characters who gained immortality through song. Old railroad songs seem to be some of the most prolific image-makers.

I read a book recently that was entitled: ‘Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and American Folk Outlaw Performance.’ The phrase I stumbled across that struck me like a bat against my brain was:  “Goin ‘where the Southern cross’ the Dog.”

The phrase refers to a railroad crossing in the Deep South well known to locals and outlaws alike. A great description of this phrase comes from Greg Johnson of the University of Mississippi. This southern state has a rich and fascinating treasure lore of blues history and background.

Mr. Johnson explains:

“Many early blues singers used variations on the phrase “going where the Southern cross the Dog.” The expression refers to the place in Moorhead, Mississippi, where the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley rail line intersected with the Southern rail line. Many southerners referred to the Yazoo and Mississippi line as the “Yellow Dog” or simply the “Dog” or “Dawg.” The first historical reference to blues lyrics mentions this phrase: when W. C. Handy wrote about first hearing the blues in 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler, he described a man playing guitar and repeating the phrase “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.” Handy later popularized the phrase in his “Yellow Dog Blues” (1914). Charley Patton sang the phrase in “Green River Blues” (1929), and Kokomo Arnold used it in “Long and Tall” (1937). Today, the Southern rail line is known as the Columbus and Greenville (C&G) Railway, and the Yazoo and Mississippi rail line has been moved eastward and consolidated by the Illinois Central.”

  • Written by Greg Johnson, University of Mississippi

In one of my latest plays entitled ‘Tangled Roots.’ I’ve tried to layer my storyline with bits and pieces of folk history. ‘Tangled Roots’ delves into the history of folk music and its enduring grip on the American populous.  Folk music is about real people and real events, weathered by the seasons, tarnish by current misconceptions and yet solid enough to be tested by the vagrancies of time.

Dapple skies of pink

Leaving LAX

Certain words and phrases can paint ‘dapple skies with marsh mellow clouds full of curious thoughts.’ Like the phrase: ‘leaving LAX,’ it’s a mystery, a question mark and a story all wrapped up in one evening sky.


Unknown said...

Your blogs are always interesting and enjoyable.

Author Denis J. LaComb said...

Thank you. Comments like yours encourage me to continue probing my mind for (I hope) thoughtful points of view.

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