Did you know that the creator of this song is unknown and will likely never be revealed? I've been researching for hours on Wade In The Water, my ultimate favorite spiritual to sing, and I realized why it was always so hard to find the composer for it. The man or woman responsible for the song will forever be a hidden black figure in history.
It makes sense when you think about the fact that slaves didn't have the luxury of receiving song credits or keeping a record of their creative work. This is true of countless negro spirituals, which were often referred to as slave songs. In "The Souls of Black Folk", W. E. B. Du Bois referred to these songs as "Sorrow Songs" which are one of the greatest gifts to come out of slavery.
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Although it is not confirmed, it is widely taught that Harriet Tubman, who made several trips to the South and helped free more than 70 people in the mid-19th century, used this song as a part of the journey. While the lyrics have a more religious interpretation in general, this song was used as a code for the slaves to get off the trail and into the water. Slavers used dogs to find escaped slaves and the water helped hide their scent.
It is important to note that spirituals like these were already popular in the black community even before Harriet Tubman took this journey. She is said to have taken several spirituals that were well known and could be used to signal many different messages. Since blacks were often known to sing, white people wouldn't be alarmed by hearing it.
This popular song likely has origins that date at least back to the 1870s. John Wesley Work Jr., spent three decades at the HBCU Fisk University, collecting a series of songs from the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. The original Fisk Jubilee Singers were active in the 1870s, and John decided to revive their works with a new smaller group called The Sunset Four Jubilee Singers.
The lyrics to this song were first published in 1901 in New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers by John Wesley Work Jr. and his brother Frederick J. Work. The first recording of it was performed by the Sunset Four Jubilee Singers and released by Paramount Records in 1925. Some subsequent publications have a very large variety in the lyrics in the verses, but they all start with the lines as followed:
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water
God's a-going to trouble the water
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This song has references to Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan River into the promised land. Deuteronomy 30 verses 11-16 is a message from Moses directly to those who were following him to freedom:
"11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess."
The new testament also gives us more insight on what it means when God is going to trouble the water when you look at the King James version. John 5:4 gives an explanation of these waters below:
"17For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had."
The waters of the Jordan represent freedom from oppression, breakthrough, and deliverance that we all can relate to in some way. Howard Thurman, a well-known dean at HBCU Howard University described the troubled waters in his book "The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death" as a huge moment of transformation.
Howard wrote, "The ‘troubled waters’ meant the ups and downs, the vicissitudes of life. Within the context of the ‘troubled’ waters of life, there are healing waters, because God is in the midst of the turmoil.” God is going to trouble the water and you may be uncomfortable, but it's ultimately what will make you a better person on the other side.
You want the confidence to be able to wade through muddy and uncalm waters. Too often we see a part in our journey where the process will get tough, and we pause in fear or go in another direction. Stirred or troubled waters may shake up your faith, but God calls us to wade in the water and go through the troubling with faith in Him in order to get to the other side, the Promise Land.
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As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 200 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, features, nursery rhymes, and DJ drops, she currently spends her time engulfed in creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Her most recent creative collaborations include work with PBS Sound Field, Tribe of Noise, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Check out Yona’s latest music releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share the music if you like it!
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