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 Continue reading