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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A mystery about one of blues singer Bessie Smith’s most enduring songs has been solved.
A Christmas Day flood that struck Nashville in 1926 was the
inspiration for the Smith classic "Back-Water Blues," music scholar
David Evans revealed Friday during a presentation to a class on blues
music at Vanderbilt University.
Evans is the first to link together the evidence to build a solid
case for the song’s origin. His article on the subject will be
published in the Popular Music scholarly journal by the end of the
Written by Smith and her best-known recording during her lifetime,
"Back-Water Blues" was released in 1927 and commonly assumed then to be
about a flood of the Mississippi River that April. It was marketed by
Columbia Records in association with that flood.
"It’s generally been interpreted by music historians as being about
an unknown event or as a generic flood song," said Evans, who directs
the ethnomusicology/regional studies doctoral program at the Rudie E.
Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis.
But Evans decided to take another look.
"Bessie Smith recorded it in February of 1927, when no one could
have known there was going to be a massive flood of the Mississippi in
two months," Evans said. "So I got to thinking, ‘Could she have had a
specific flood in mind?’"
Evans consulted Chris Albertson’s biography of Smith, Bessie, and
found information attributed to Smith’s sister-in-law Maud Smith
describing the events that led to the song. Maud Smith told of arriving
in "a little Southern town" for a Bessie Smith performance and having
to be transported from the train station by boat because of
flooding. The theater was next to a funeral home, where flood
refugees were staying. The refugees asked Bessie Smith to sing
something about the flood, but she didn’t have such a song.
Bessie Smith took the suggestion and wrote the song. She recorded "Back-Water Blues" on Feb.17, 1927, in New York.
Evans studied Bessie Smith’s touring schedule and reports of floods
for several months prior to the recording date. He discovered that she
was booked to play the Bijou Theater in Nashville from Dec. 30 to Jan.
"She would have gotten there just after the flood had hit, and it
turns out that the Bijou Theater was next to a funeral parlor," he
said. "So clearly this was the flood she was talking about."
Christmas Day 1926 flood in Nashville came following five days of rain
and left about 10,000 people homeless, according to news reports. The
lyrics of Bessie Smith’s song support these details.
"This is probably the first blues about a flood," Evans said. "It
was by far the biggest hit and most enduring song about a flood, and it
was one of Bessie Smith’s biggest sellers."
Bessie Smith, a native of Chattanooga, is considered one of the best
blues singers of all time. She was one of the most popular singers of
The blues course at Vanderbilt was launched this semester by Greg
Barz, an assistant professor of musicology at the Blair School of Music
at Vanderbilt. Students are taking a sociological approach to their
studies and benefiting from the school’s setting in a major music
industry center. Singer-songwriter Steve Forbert has lectured, and
Delbert McClinton will also visit during the semester.
"Evans’ revelations about the significance of ‘Back-Water Blues’ to
the history of Nashville is profound," Barz said. "Vanderbilt is
fortunate to have such a discovery unveiled within the context of a
blues class where we place a high value on such socially relevant
"Courses in jazz, blues and other popular musics at the Blair School
of Music confirm Vanderbilt’s overall commitment to America’s rich
Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS