“Back-Water Blues,” a song composed and recorded in 1927 by singer Bessie Smith, has long been associated with the lower Mississippi River flooding that happened that same year. But as musicologist David Evans found through an extensive research of Smith’s touring schedules, newspaper reports, and testimonies from her fellow entertainers, the calamity about which Smith sings is more likely a 1926 flood in Nashville, Tennessee. The story of how this song has been tied to the later flood is one of continued sadness and anger, along with a pointed look at how governmental policies failed Black Americans.
“When it rained five days, and the skies turned dark”
Bessie Smith was an absolute star. She was the best-known, highest-paid, best-selling blues artist of the 1920s. As Evans writes, “By 1927, she had become widely known as the ‘Empress of Blues,’” and by the time she stopped recording in 1933, she had a total of 160 songs. “Back-Water Blues” would become one of her most covered songs, and as Evans points out, it also became “an all-purpose generic blues on the flood theme, suitable commemorating any particular flood or floods.” This is one reason it became associated with a flood that happened two months after it was recorded.
Though the song was recorded in February 1927, it wasn’t released until March 20, a month or so before the Mississippi flooded. The record was “in the stores at the perfect time to capitalise on the event that directly or indirectly affected millions of Americans,” notes Evans. It was a case of the right record coming along just when it was most needed. Once the flooding started, there was a spate of flood-related songs, sermons, poetry, and essays, and though Smith’s was already out, it was easy to slot it in with the others.
“I woke up this morning, can’t even get out of my door”
It wasn’t unexpected for a blues song to double as a political statement. As literature scholar Emily Rutter notes, the genre was also “an essential vehicle for protesting white supremacy.”
“Back-Water Blues” was no exception. Like the Mississippi River flood, Tennessee’s Cumberland River flood of 1926 disproportionately affected Black people, and both disasters revealed how much race played a role in everyday life. As Evans writes, the Cumberland flood “forc[ed] up to ten thousand people, mostly African-Americans, from their homes.” This disparity was caused by housing policies that “consigned many [B]lack residents to low-lying areas,” making their homes more susceptible to flooding.
This same housing policy led to more than 90 percent of the 1927 flood victims being Black, particularly as it was coupled with unequal relief distribution and “work demand,” which gave “local whites the authority to force African Americans into whatever type of work they desired after the flood” explains historian Richard M. Mizelle, Jr.
This mostly meant levee repair while living in “levee camps,” where Black workers were forced to labor and not allowed to leave. The National Guard also monitored Black residents’ movements, such that “every African American family, single man, woman, and child had to be vouched for by another local white” before receiving assistance. Hearing Smith sing “There’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go,” and knowing that your community was being seen and recognized in song, was likely very powerful.
While the flood that Smith sang about wasn’t the flood that the song would ultimately be most connected to, it still shows the importance of the genre and of the song. The blues reflected Black life, allowing a well-timed song like “Back-Water Blues,” Evans writes, to become “part of the body of protest that arose from the black community.”
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