Researcher Traces True Evolution of Term “Ole Miss”

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Dr. Albert Earl Elmore’s essay traces the connection of the term “Ole Miss” to a blues number by W.C. Handy and a train from Memphis to Oxford that carried that name.

Editor’s note: HottyToddy.com columnist John Hailman, who is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on law and wine, has just published his second wine volume, entitle the Search for Good Wine, which is now available at Oxford’s Square Books and at other book stores throughout the country. Hailman’s latest book on law, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crims Stories From a Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi, continues to sell well and will be coming out in paperback in March to be followed next September by a second memoir of Mississippi trials, Return to Guntown: Life Among the Colorful Criminals of Faulkner Country.

Hailman’s latest contribution to HottyToddy.com is extremely timely and we’re excited about it. He has forwarded two fascinating essays by Dr. Albert Earl Elmore, a noted scholar who holds degrees from Milsaps College and Ole Miss Law School with a Ph.D in English Literature from Vanderbilt.

The winner of six grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he is the author of essays on Faulkner and Fitzgerald as well as the 2009 book, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Echoes of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer.

Dr. Elmore, after years of research, has unearthed both the words and music of the classic, but long-forgotten song “The Ole Miss Blues.” Dr. Elmore has written two essays on the topic; the first on the song itself, a poetic and colorful work by the composer W.C. Hardy, who was also a scholarly professor of music as well as a famed performer.

Dr. Elmore’s second essay traces the history of the phrase “Ole Miss” arguing persuasively through historical references that the term “Ole Miss” referred not only to the state of Mississippi generally, but specifically to a Memphis-to-New Orleans train that may even have stopped at the Old Oxford Depot. (recently restored as a Conference Center) where it could have dropped off many returning Ole Miss students.

A copy of the sheet music is attached with his essay. Dr. Elmore is currently working with local Blues scholars to combine the words with the music to create a true “Ole Miss Blues” song to perform at athletic and other campus events.

The Ole Miss Blues by Dr. A.E. Elmore

In 1916 a remarkable event occurred with regard to the name Ole Miss. W.C. Handy, the Father of the Blues, who had moved from his hometown of Florence, Alabama, to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and whose band, eventually based in Memphis, often played the for dances at Ole Miss, published and recorded a song called “The Ole Miss Rag.” Scott Joplin would later record the song as well, the only ragtime piece Joplin ever recorded that was not his own composition.

Recordings of Joplin’s version, as well as versions by Louis Armstrong and by Handy’s own band, are still available and can easily be accessed via the internet on YouTube.

On the cover of the sheet music issued by the Handy Music Company appeared a drawing of a train. Underneath that train, appeared the words, “The Fastest thing out of Memphis.” There can be no doubt that Handy was referring to Ole Miss as the name of the train. He made this even clearer two years later when he re-issued the same tune under another title, “The Ole Miss Blues.” This time he had another musician collaborate to add words:

The Ole Miss Blues (Words by W.C. Handy and J Russel Robinson, 1918

Talk about your fast express, There’s a train that I love best — I just want to tell you this Bout an engine called “Ole Miss.” She leaves ole Memphis, Tennessee, Next day in New Orleans she’ll be. If you own insurance and have endurance, Just ride upon that line. You’ll think of old Casey Jones as your bones start to rattle. Bumpin’ along, O what a battle, Wheezing and sneezing thru dear Old Dixiland. Each stop she makes, lazy folks cracking jokes, Come a grinnin’, dancin’ around, with style so winning’ No other trip’s half so grand.

Chorus: Speeding along with a song in the wheels, Oh what a sight are those white cotton fields, You meditate and then begin to muse, While your heart sings to the tune of “Ole Miss Blues.”

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First page sheet music of Handy’s composition, Ole Miss Blues

Later, Louis Armstrong recorded “The Ole Miss Blues” in a version that Handy himself preferred to any other. Records of Armstrong’s version are also still available.

Composer and band leader W.C. Handy himself had an extended relationship — a fascinating relationship — with Ole Miss, the University. He was playing for its dances before he ever wrote “The Ole Miss Rag” or Ole Miss Blues.”

William Faulkner, the most famous individual ever to attend ole Miss, even though he attended only briefly, was deeply influenced by Handy and his music. According to Ole Miss English Professor Adam Gussow, “handy and young Faulkner crossed paths at the Oxford home of Myrtle Ramey between 1912 and 1914, where the future author danced with his future wife Estelle, and at the Red and Blue dances in the Gordon Hall Ballroom on the Ole Miss campus over the following half-decade.”

“I shall always remember that time that W.C. Handy played for a dance at Ole Miss, remembered Clifton Bondurant Webb, “and Mr. Faulkner led the grand march.”

According to Gussow, “The African American bandleader and the … white Mississippian who fictionalized the bandleader in Soldier’s Pay a decade later … were both ambitious modernists.”

It might be added that in the greatest of all short stories, “The Evening Sun,” Faulkner memorialized the words of Handy’s most famous song, “The St. Louis Blues,” which throughout most of the 20th Century was the most recorded song in history.

On Monday, the second part of Dr. Elmore’s study on the origin of Ole Miss.

7 COMMENTS

  1. The Ole Miss yearbook was called “OLE MISS” long before this train or the song left the station. It looks to me like the fraternities of the University used the term in the late 1800’s

  2. A key theme that runs through the two essays is that “a Memphis-to-New Orleans train” called the “Ole Miss” may “have stopped at the Old Oxford Depot” suggesting thereby a linkage between the train and the name for the university. However, the Memphis to New Orleans train did not pass through Oxford. It passed to the west through Batesville on its way from Memphis to Jackson and New Orleans. There was never a railroad that ran directly from Oxford to Memphis

  3. My brother who was a Latin scholar at Ole Miss, came home one weekend about 60 years ago. I have told this before in some comments related to the situation. The gender for a university is feminine just like a ship. He told me 60 years ago that the background for Ole Miss is from a Latin reference to the University being a school of learning. “Miss” being the feminine connotation to the University and a school of learning which it is.

  4. I do not know about the Univeisty of Mississsipi but my late grandmother in Alabama told me that she was sometimes called “Old Miss” among the African American cotton farm employees who lived on the place. She said it was a respectable term in that regard.

  5. Dr. Elmore, are you the individual who may have written a book or information on the McCoys? Zula McCoy is an ancestor of mine.
    If so, please contact me at this email.
    Thank you for your time.

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