The Story in the Backwater Blues

Music tells the tale.   That is the title of a book sitting in my bookshelf at home.  It contains some of the great music from history and the stories that are told through the instrumented notes.  Well, today I want to reintroduce you to a song that contains a story not only in its instrumentation, but in its lyrics as well.  It’s a story that is part of American history, told by a woman who lived through a tragic natural event.  It speaks to the devastating power of water and is a peek into the heartache of those affected.

And it’s a perfect fit for Music and Literacy month.

I introduced The Backwater Blues to my students this week, listening to it each day during our snack time as we do every day.  I wanted to share how I have approached bringing this story to life little by little each day so that you may do the same with either this song or another song that tells a story.

Time frame – Each mini lesson lasted 10-15 minutes, although you could group them up and spend 30-40 minutes on this if you so desire.

Monday – Have students listen to the song once through and then give first impressions of it.  Focus on the style of the piece (Blues), instrumentation and overall feel.

Tuesday – Listen to the song with the focus on the lyrics, the story.  Listen to the whole song and discuss what students picked up on.  Then, start listening again from the beginning, pausing after each 3 lined verse.  Ask students to summarize what was told.  Continue with this until students have paused and discussed each part of the story, piecing it together.  (You may not get through the entire song this way in one 10-15 minutes session, so continue it tomorrow.)  Remind students that this is what we do when we read – we pause every so often and check for understanding.

Wednesday – Start the song from the beginning and play until you get to where you left off the day prior.  Finish listening to the song, pausing and checking for understanding.  Discuss the story and get students impressions of it.  Be sure to have students listen for instrumental embellishments in the song that help to illustrate the lyrics of the story.  For example, when the lyrics mention wind, the piano imitates the sound of harsh wind blowing.  If time allows, listen to the entire song and enjoy!

Thursday – Now is the time to reveal that this story is TRUE!  If they haven’t figured it out yet, lead them to understand that this is about a woman living through a flood and then start to pull in some more historical context for them.  The lyrics are of the flooding of New Orleans in 1927 and you can find a lot of information about it online.   Click the image to get information about and see a collection of images from the flood of 1927.  You can also check out Google images.  Make sure you play the song for them on this day as well.  Have some images up for students to look at as you play it.

Friday – For the most part, simply enjoy the song and allow all the listeners to listen now with educated ears.  You may bring up the point that knowing the context and background of the song and it’s story can really add to the enjoyment of listening.  The same is true for all kinds of music and stories.  This is also the time to discuss the more recent and related events that have occurred in this area of New Orleans.

So, will students enjoy listening to the song this many times?  Yes!  Trust me.  Not only is this an intriguing story, but it is a new experience where you are building on their knowledge each day.   One year when I shared this song with my class, they weren’t to fond of it the first time they listened, but loved it by the end of the week.  Read about that HERE.

So many songs have great stories that truly imitate storytelling.   Go HERE for more information and enjoy this short playlist I’ve created that contains songs that tell stories for your classroom.

Enjoy listening to these songs and stories with your students!

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!

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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. Thank you for sending me a tweet about this post. I find this song to be very personal on several levels. While I was not around in 1927, it did remind me of how so many felt after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures. Also, I have met Irma Thomas and heard her sing in person many times. She tells great stories through her music. And lastly, one of the great things about living in New Orleans is how you can hear great blues and jazz as you stroll through the French Quarter.

    • Paula, Thanks for the comment. I was wondering you had some personal connections to the song. What a rich culture you have down there in New Orleans. My class made connections after listening to the song and learning about the flood to our Skype session with your class where we learned about Mardi Gras. Thanks for that great opportunity!

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