The Blues, Storytelling and Science

Image from the flood of 1927

For the past few weeks, my students have been learning about “Land and Water.”  They’ve been conducting experiments, learning about the water cycle, making it rain, observing erosion, carving out riverbeds and watching the power of water.

This week, we started listening to the blues and to kick things off, I chose Backwater Blues sung by Irma Thomas.   The original is sung by Bessie Smith.

As we were enjoying our first listen yesterday, it hit me, yet again, that music is such a great story teller. This song is NO exception. In fact, it could be the rule. The lyrics are of the flooding of New Orleans in 1927 and it takes you through one woman’s experience living through the tradgety. The powerful lyrics and overall groove and feel of the whole song really help to illustrate the hardships that can be brought on from water. And for a group of students in Massachusetts, music and the story that is told through it, is a wonderful way to help bring those experiences a little bit of life.

The other song we will listen to (next week) is Basin Street Blues.

Saturday night juke joint outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, November 1939

This speaks of another side of the water, the fun times that can be had along the river in New Orleans.  Again, there is a story here.  I play the version sung by Ella Fitzgerald.  I love this recording because is also features her singing scat (vocal improvisation where the singer imitates an instrument, singing a series of syllables and nonsense words.)  The kids love is as they are exposed to a different culture and a different time – all part of our American history!  (I could have added social studies to the title too, I guess.)

As we listen to these songs, it is fun to connect the lyrics to what makes a good story.  Writing stories is something that is at the forefront of our minds lately since our state testing is next week.  One of the major assignments all the MA 4th grade students are required to do is write a narrative.  Listening to these songs (even for just this one day so far) has elicited discussion around what makes a good story.  In Backwater Blues, for example, the lyrics start by describing the setting and main character.  Once the song gets going, you hear details to help visualize what is happening in the story to this poor woman and even some embellishments from the instruments that bring the lyrics to life just as we ask our students to do when writing descriptions that incorporate the senses.

Two songs tied together through the theme of water, powerful in their story and purposeful in getting the students (and their teacher) interested in how water has affected a region of our nation.  I hope you enjoy these two songs and get caught up (as I have while writing this) in the stories they tell.  There is so much to learn as you look up information and images that accompany the two.  I’m not going to pretend to know it all here.  I’ll just leave you to start searching around yourself. OR, better yet, share your knowledge about the Mississippi Delta with us by adding a comment.  Maybe you have your own story to share!


Celebrate Music and Literacy by taking advantage of Elizabeth’s book Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that focuses on how to use listening experiences in your classroom to inspire all kinds of writing (including sentence and paragraph writing, poetry and narratives), reading strategies (including visualization and main idea) and even grammar practice; all while listening to music that you love.  The book is on sale this month only (March) at 20% off!

photo credit 1, photo credit 2

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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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  1. Cindy Yetman says:

    I love the Blues Elizabeth! I just wrote in my reflection piece to you how I have my Sirius XM radio in my car on BB King’s Bluesville every day! The tempo and strong bass is what I love about the Blues. Some of my favorite bands from the 70’s have a Blues influence such as Marshall Tucker, the Allman Brothers..etc.! I like your comments here of how you connected your science curriculum to these 2 pieces! Well done!

    • Thanks for your comment. I love exposing students to the blues. It’s something they usually have little experience with. And it’s true that the blues created the basis for so much modern music. It’s a good hook for some students.

  2. Carol Greene says:

    Elizabeth, I like the way you think. Music enriches our lives in many ways. As you have shown music can be integated into the curriculum– science, history, literature, etc.; music knows no bounds.
    While I may not listen to music everyday, I do enjoy the blues especially Keb’ Mo’.

  • […] The Blues, Storytelling and Science For the past few weeks, my students have been learning about “Land and Water.”  They’ve been conducting experiments, learning about the water cycle, making it rain, observing erosion, carving out riverbeds and watching the power of water. This week, we started listening to the blues and to kick things off, I chose Backwater Blues […] […]

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