Popular Music

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Bessie Smith's ‘Back-Water Blues’: the story behind the song

a1 Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music, The University of Memphis, Memphis, TN 38152, USA E-mail: dhevans@memphis.edu

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‘Back-Water Blues’, composed by Bessie Smith and recorded by her on 17 February 1927, has long been associated in the popular mind and even by some writers with the great flood of the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries that occurred that year. This is historically problematical because that flood began two months after Smith recorded her song. Through an examination of Smith's touring itinerary, the testimony of fellow entertainers who toured with her, newspaper reports, and other documents, it can be shown that the song was composed about a flood of the Cumberland River that struck Nashville, Tennessee, on Christmas morning, 1926. The lyrics of the song are interpreted with respect to the events of that flood.

(Published Online January 4 2007)