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|Single by Bessie Smith & Jimmy Johnson|
|B-side||"Preachin' the Blues"|
|Recorded||February 17, 1927New York, NY,|
The song "Backwater Blues" is a blues and jazz standard. It was written by Bessie Smith, and recorded (under the title "Back-water Blues") by her (vocals) and James P. Johnson (piano) on February 17, 1927.
The song has long been associated with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. However, that flood was at its worst some two months after the song was written. Study of Smith's touring itinerary, of testimony of fellow entertainers who toured with her, and of contemporary reports indicates that the song was written in response to the flood that struck Nashville, Tennessee on Christmas Day 1926. The Cumberland River, which flows through the city, rose 56 feet (17 m) above its normal level, still a record as of 2014[update].
The lyrics are in the often-used AAB blues format. The words vary from one performer to another; this opening verse is representative:
When it rains five days, and the skies turn dark as night (x2)
There's trouble taking place in the lowland that night.
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The song has been covered by many other artists. Notable recordings of the song include:
- Lonnie Johnson (1927)
- Albert Ammons (1930s), (instrumental)
- Ruby Smith with Jimmy Johnson and His Orchestra (1939), Vocalion 4903
- Lead Belly (1940), Capitol 40130
- Jimmy Johnson (1943), (instrumental)
- Josh White (c.1946), Decca 23582
- Big Bill Broonzy (1951)
- LaVern Baker (1958), LaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith
- Dinah Washington with Eddie Chamblee's Orchestra (1958), Dinah Sings Bessie Smith
- Dinah Washington (1958), Newport '58 (recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival)
- Dave Van Ronk (1959), Dave Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues, and a Spiritual
- Lightnin' Hopkins (1960), Country Blues
- Bob Dylan (1961), Live in New York 1961
- Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (1961), Backwater Blues
- Count Basie and His Orchestra with Irene Reid (1962)
- Alex Harvey and His Soul Band (1964), Alex Harvey and His Soul Band
- Skip James (1968), The Complete Bloomington, Indiana Concert, March 30, 1968, Document DOCD-5634
- Colosseum (1969), Those Who Are About to Die Salute You
- Frumpy (1973), Live
- Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan (1980), Trouble in Mind (instrumental)
- Philip Sayce (1996), Philip Sayce Group
- Long John Baldry (1999), Evening Conversation
- Jay McShann (1999), Still Jumpin' the Blues
- Irma Thomas (2005), Various Artists/Our New Orleans, Elektra/Nonesuch
- James Blood Ulmer (2007), Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions
- B.B. King (2008), One Kind Favor
- The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band (2011), How I Go
- Jimmy Witherspoon
- Jo Ann Kelly CD The Blues Anthology CD2 2006 Charly Records
The following songs have different words and music from the main subject of this article and from each other, despite their same or similar titles:
- "Backwater Blues" – Uncle Dave Macon and Sam McGee (1927)
- "Tupelo (Backwater Blues)" – John Lee Hooker and Bill Lee (1960), Newport Folk Festival, 1960
- "Backwater Blues" – Chris Knight (2007), The Trailer Tapes
- "Bessie Smith". redhotjazz.com. Retrieved December 16, 2014.
- "COLUMBIA (USA) 14000D series Numerical Listing". 78discography.com.
- Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-306-80743-5.
- Evans, David (2007). "Bessie Smith's 'Back-Water Blues': the story behind the song" (PDF). Popular Music. Cambridge University Press. 26 (1): 97–116. doi:10.1017/s0261143007001158. Retrieved December 16, 2014.
- Brown, Sterling (1980). The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. New York: Harper & Row. p. 63. ISBN 0-06-010517-8.
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