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.

Image from the flood of 1927

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 tragedy. 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.


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.)

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

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

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.

The Mississippi River

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.  

photo credit 1, photo credit 2