Backwater Blues

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"Backwater Blues"
Single by Bessie Smith & Jimmy Johnson
B-side"Preachin' the Blues"
RecordedFebruary 17, 1927 (1927-02-17), New York, NY
Songwriter(s)Bessie Smith

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.[1][2]

The song has long been associated with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.[3] 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.[4]

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.

The song is quoted in the poem, "Ma Rainey" by Sterling A. Brown.[5]

Other recordings[edit]

The song has been covered by many other artists. Notable recordings of the song include:

Other songs[edit]

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:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Bessie Smith". Archived from the original on November 21, 2017. Retrieved December 16, 2014.
  2. ^ "COLUMBIA (USA) 14000D series Numerical Listing".
  3. ^ Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-306-80743-5.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Brown, Sterling (1980). The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. New York: Harper & Row. p. 63. ISBN 0-06-010517-8.