Deep Waters: ‘Wade in the Water’

[originally appeared in Shindig! issue 115]

The graceful, emotional ‘Wade on the Water’ has been a stirring musical expression of faith and hope for more than a century. However, the oppression described in its lyrics is not just an artifact from the past. While this article was being written, two US state governments passed laws that will affect minority communities’ ability to exercise their right to vote, and a white US police officer is on trial for charges related to the murder of a Black man. ‘Wade in the Water’ is important not only as a classic piece of music, but as a representation of historical injustices whose effects still have not disappeared.

‘Wade in the Water’ originated in the southern US in the mid-1800s, as a spiritual sung by enslaved African-Americans. In those communities, spirituals were more than just expressions of religious devotion. Some spirituals would be sung to alert freedom-seekers when it was safest to escape, without slaveholders (“masters”) knowing that information was being communicated.  The lyrics of ‘Wade in the Water’ reference the Biblical story of the Israelites crossing the river Jordan, but the lyrics also remind those seeking freedom to walk in the rivers along their journey, so that tracking dogs and slave-catchers could not follow their footprints or their scent.

‘Wade in the Water’ became one of the best-known spirituals in the African-American community, but it wasn’t more broadly known until it was performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This a capella group was formed at Fisk University in Nashville, established in 1867 to educate freed men and women. In 1871, the Singers were sent on a US tour to raise money for the financially struggling university. That November, they appeared at a national convention of ministers, where, according to their website, “[a]fter a few standard ballads the chorus sang spirituals and other songs associated with slavery. It was one of the first public performances of the secret music African-Americans sang in the fields and behind closed doors for generations.” Further tours by the Singers, including trips to Europe and Australia, and the publication of the song’s music and lyrics in the early 1900s took ‘Wade in the Water’ to even larger national and international audiences.

The song was first recorded in ‘25 by the Sunset Four Jubilee Singers, and was performed and recorded by many other gospel and spiritual singing groups in the early part of the 20th century, in addition to being a popular hymn in African-American churches. But it gradually became part of popular music as well. At the dawn of the 1960s, as the civil rights movement gained momentum in the US, there was a revival of interest in traditional folk music and in African-American culture. That made ‘Wade in the Water’ part of the soundtrack to that turbulent decade – both as a vocal number and as an instrumental.

In 1960, the Johnny Griffin Orchestra – billed as “The Big-Soul Band” – recorded a dynamic soul-jazz instrumental interpretation of the song. The Norman Simmons arrangement showed the song’s melody was a terrific basis for improvisation, with dramatic upright bass and saxophone solos, and also demonstrated how well the song worked as a number for a large instrumental ensemble. Judy Henske recorded ‘the song in ’63 on her Miss Judy Henske album – a particularly striking version, with her powerful bluesy voice blasting the high notes of the melody.

But the version that most listeners would know from that era is the hand-clapping dance-floor-filling instrumental by jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, who described his style as “incorporat[ing] Black church music with straight pop”. His ‘Wade in the Water’ was a Top 40 hit in the US in ’65 and in the UK in ’72, and its success inspired other instrumental covers by artists such as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, who scored a US Top 40 hit with their ’66 version. Lewis’ version inspired vocalist Marlena Shaw to adapt the song’s lyrics for her ‘66 single ‘Let’s Wade in the Water’: an updating which, she said, “was put down by the church people in the south, who felt that some of the lyrics were a little risqué.”

Some might have thought that Lewis also inspired Graham Bond to cover the song, but bassist Jack Bruce told interviewer Jim Irvin in ‘95 that the Graham Bond Quartet started playing ‘Wade in the Water’ in “1962 or 1963, so it predates the Lewis version – a lot of Hammond [organ] players did it”. Bruce also played the song with Bond in the Graham Bond Organization, and characterized the Organization’s more up-tempo version on The Sound of ’65 album as “the definitive Graham track”. It’s an astonishing performance, with fiery interplay between Bond’s organ, Ginger Baker’s drums, and Dick Heckstall-Smith’s saxophones. “It’s all him, really,” Bruce said of Bond’s contributions. “He used to Bach it up in the introduction and it was very exciting live.”  The unlikely combination of Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’ with an African-American spiritual reflected Bond’s wide-ranging musical influences; he told Beat Instrumental magazine that “[w]e are influenced by every good thing ever heard.” The 2012 Graham Bond Organization box set Wade in the Water includes several versions of the song, including multiple studio takes and an intense live performance.  

Harvey Mandel’s extended instrumental meditation on ‘Wade on the Water’, on his ’68 solo debut Cristo Redentor, is rooted in a hypnotically slinky rhythm that underpins Mandel’s gently ascending sinuous guitar lines, lifted Nick De Caro’s airy string arrangements. Listening with headphones is highly recommended, to get the full experience of the shifting sounds and spaces. In a ’95 interview, Mandel explained that “I wanted the song to be a big production number with a wide, live feel and lots of natural reverb”; that effect was achieved by recording part of the track live at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom and completing the recording in the studio. Clover’s ’70 version from their first, self-titled album has a similar rhythm, but moves closer to the song’s gospel origins with Alex Call’s yearning vocals.

‘Wade in the Water’ continued to be popular well beyond the ‘60s, with more than 150 cover versions to date. This year, the Fisk Jubilee Singers won the Grammy for Best Roots Gospel Album for Celebrating Fisk! The 150th Anniversary Album, on which ‘Wade in the Water’ was the lead-off track. Its message of hope continues to resonate, while serving as a reminder that racial oppression is still a reality and the fight against that oppression is far from over.

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