Behind the Meaning of the Classic Gospel Song “Wade In The Water”

For anyone who’s been to church, the song “Wade in the Water” is likely a familiar one.

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s brooding, deep, and moving. But it also has an important history when considering the devastating history of the American slave trade.

Let’s dive in.

The Song’s History and Meaning

The spiritual song “Wade in the Water” is also known as an African American jubilee song, meaning that it was created and first sung by enslaved Blacks.

The lyrics of the moving tune were first published in 1901 in New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The book was published by Frederick J. Work and his brother John Wesley Work Jr., a teacher at the HBCU Fisk University in Nashville who spent years collecting and promulgating songs of this nature. But the song’s roots go back way further than that.

Later, the Sunset Four Jubilee Singers made the first commercial recording of “Wade in the Water” in 1925. That version was released by Paramount Records.

Today, the song is associated with tunes from the Underground Railroad, a network that helped free slaves during the time of slavery. Famous abolitionist W.E.B. Du Bois called the genre of songs from which “Wade in the Water” comes, “Sorrow Songs.” He added that they were “African American’s “greatest gift” and the “singular spiritual heritage of the nation.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

This collection of performers was an African-American a cappella group from Fisk University, located in Nashville, from 1871-1878. The group introduced spirituals to a wider audience. In 1901, Work Jr. published New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers with his brother.

Fisk’s version included a closing that showcased the depth of the singing voices and a solo call response that overlapped singing layers and showcased falsetto humming.

Work Jr. was also aided by Ella Sheppard, who was one of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. She helped to compose and arrange music. She said that the group chose to highlight slave songs because they “were sacred to our parents, who used them in their religious worship and shouted over them.” She added, “It was only after many months that gradually our hearts were opened to the influence of these friends and we began to appreciate the wonderful beauty and power of our songs.” (Quotes according to Portable Nineteenth Century African American Women Writers from Penguin Books).

The original Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the country to raise money for Fisk. Their first tour was on Jubilee Day, October 6, 1871. They performed at Boston’s World Peace Festival, at the White House, and in 1873 they toured Europe. The group disbanded in 1878 but they were remembered again 12 years later in 1890 when Ella Sheppard Moore returned to Fisk to coach new jubilee vocalists, including Work Jr.

In 1925, Work Jr. died and to celebrate him, the first commercial recording of “Wade in the Water” was created by the Sunset Four Jubilee Singers and it was released on Paramount Records.

The Lyrics

As published in 1901 in New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the lyrics go:

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water

The song is sung in a low, mellow, brooding fashion. Almost like a death march.

In James W. Johnson’s 1926 The Book of American Negro Spirituals, the song is called, “God’s A-Gwineter Trouble De Water” and the first line is sung, Wade in de water, children.

Another rendition from 1956 begins, Oh see that man dressed in white, according to the Roud Folk Song Index. And According to Olivia and Jack Solomon’s 1991 “Honey in the Rock,” a 1930s version from Alabama is titled “God Gonna Trouble the Water” and opens with the line I’m er wading, I’m er wading in the water, chillun.

In ethnomusicologist and song collector Alan Lomax and Peggy Seeger’s 1960 book, Folk Songs of North America, the opening line of the song goes, ‘Member one thing an’ it’s certainly sho.

There are several more versions, many of which start similarly. The song is a warning of the end but assures the listener that heaven will triumph over hell.

Harriet Tubman

It is thought that the legendary abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, who made an astounding 13 trips to the South to free more than 70 slaves, used “Wade in the Water” to warn slaves to get off the trail and into the water to prevent being sniffed out by dogs that were used to hunt them.

Songs during the time of American slavery were used as warnings, as ways to teach new generations, and as ways to heal and keep spirits afloat during centuries when Blacks were treated as subhuman. In this way, music was one of the few modes of salvation. And “Wade in the Water” was central.

Later Versions

The Staple Singers performed a version of the song that became an anthem during the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Later, Bob Dylan sang the song, which appears on his Minnesota Hotel Tape from December 22, 1961. It was released on the 1969 Great White Wonder bootleg. In 1967, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass published an instrumental version.

In 2000, the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed the song at the Apollo Theater to a group of high school students. The audience applauded feverishly.

Final Thoughts

When considering the history of American music, songs like “Wade in the Water” cannot be forgotten. They are links to the past—a sad past, yes, but one that can’t be swept under any proverbial rug. For those who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it.

Somehow, with all the history and utility that the song bears today, it’s also just a fantastic composition. This is a testament to the talent of the people who sang it and kept it alive even in the darkest of times.

Photo by Leah Puttkammer/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Top 10 Brooks & Dunn Songs