Song of the Day: Wade in the Water by Sweet Honey in the Rock

Wade in the Water” (Roud 5439) is the name of a Negro spiritual first published in New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1901) by John Wesley Work II and his brother, Frederick J. Work (see Fisk Jubilee Singers).

Lyrics:

Refrain:

Wade in the Water
Wade in the Water
Children wade in the Water,God’s gonna trouble the Water

Who’s that young girl dressed in red
Wade in the Water
Must be the Children that Moses left
And God’s gonna trouble the Water

Refrain

Who’s that young girl dressed in white
Wade in the Water
Must be the Children of Israeli
God’s gonna trouble the Water

Refrain

Who’s that young girl dressed in blue
Wade in the Water
Must be Children coming true
And God’s gonna trouble the Water

Refrain

If you don’t believe I did begin to wade in the Water
Just see the holy ghost looking for me
God’s gonna trouble the Water
Refrain
……

The song relates to both the Old and New Testaments. The verses reflect the Israelites’ escape out of Egypt as found in Exodus:14. The chorus refers to healing: see John 5:4, “For 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.”

Many internet sources and popular books claim that songs such as “Wade in the Water” contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom. This particular song allegedly recommends leaving dry land and taking to the water as a strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one’s trail. It has repeatedly been reported that Harriet Tubman, who helped hundreds of slaves flee to the North, sang this spiritual as a warning to runaway slaves so she might be its author.

“Wade in the Water” was a popular instrumental hit in 1966 for the Ramsey Lewis Trio, which prompted further instrumental recordings by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and Billy Preston(both 1967). The melody was used for the 1988 Tony! Toni! Toné! hit “Little Walter”. The version by Golden Gate Quartet also appears on the album Nick Cave – Roots & Collaborations (2009), establishing the song as one of the musical sources that have inspired the Australian artist.

“Wade in the Water, Children” is a 2008 American Documentary directed and produced by Elizabeth Wood and Gabriel Nussbaum. It was filmed by a group of 8th grade students at the first school to reopen in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The film offers a shockingly intimate look into life as a child in the ruined city. The film was praised as “Scalding Stuff” by Newsday, and won the audience award at the New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival. The film is now available from IndiePix Films.

Selective list of recordings

  • Sunset Four Jubilee Singers (Paramount 1923, 1925)
  • The Charioteers (Brunswick-Columbia 1939)
  • Golden Gate Quartet (1946)
  • Odetta The Tin Angel (1954)
  • The Folksmiths with Joe Hickerson (1958) Folkways F-2407
  • Ella Jenkins and the Goodwill Spiritual Choir (1960)
  • Johnny Griffin The Big Soul Band (1960)
  • Bob Dylan Live 1961–2000: Thirty-Nine Years of Great Concert Performances (2001)
  • Judy Henske “Judy Henske” (1963)
  • Graham Bond (1965)
  • Ramsey Lewis Trio (1966)
  • Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (1967)
  • Billy Preston (1968)
  • Big Mama Thornton (1968)NOTE: lyrics recorded by Big Mama Thornton are quite different in that they seemingly have no biblic references.
  • Harvey Mandel Cristo Redentor (1968)
  • The Chambers Brothers Love, Peace and Happiness (1969)
  • Eva Cassidy (1997)
  • Chanticleer, recorded in “Reflections (An Anniversary Celebration)” (1997) and “A Portrait” (2005)
  • Mary Mary Thankful (2000)
  • Marc Broussard Carenco (2004) Not an official recording of Wade in the Water, but at 03:20 in the song Home, Broussard sings the chorus melody of Wade in the Water using altered lyrics of“Straight from the Water, Straight from the water, children”
  • IIIRD TYME OUT (The Best Durn Ride) (2004)
  • J. Boykin (Jesus Loves Me) (2009)
  • John Boutte, recorded for the film Wade in the Water, Children (see above)
  • Patty Griffin Downtown Church (2010)
  • Cerys Matthews – “Explorer” (2011)
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band Everybody’s Talkin’ (2012)
  • Tina Savage The Son and the Soul (2013)

In popular culture

‘Wade in the Water’ is featured in a number of episodes from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, some of which include, but are not limited to;

  • The song is twice heard in the fourth episode of the first season (Not with My Pig, You Don’t).
  • The seventeenth episode of the first season (The Ethnic Trip) – explains the meaning and the history of the song, and (as above) tells that it secretly contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom by recommending the ex-slave to leave dry land and to take to the water as a strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off their trail.
  • The song is featured in the film “The Little Colonel” (1935)
  • It is also featured in Grey’s Anatomy, in the first episode of season six: “Good Mourning part 1”, and the second episode of the US remake of Skins, “Tea”.
  • Additionally, it is featured in “Reunion”, Episode 206 of Touched by an Angel. It is sung by Della Reese, Natalie Cole, and Maya Angelou, with Roma Downey eventually attempting to join in.
  • The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Boston uses ‘Wade in the Water’ as an important symbol and part of the course for its baptismal training to parishes throughout the USA, as part of its distance learning programs through EDSConnect.
  • The song is also heard in Deliver Us From Eva
  • The 2008 song Took Problem Chimp To Ideal Home Show, by the British band Half Man Half Biscuit contains the refrain “Wade in The Water, Children”.
  • Recorded by Big Mama Thornton with the following lyrics:

Wade in the water – Big Mama Thornton version
See that cat on the mountain top He’s gonna rock and he just won’t stop
I said wade in the water Wade out in the water You wade in the water Everybody wade in the water
See that girl dressed in white She like to wade all night
I said wade in the water You Wade out in that water Wade in the water The hound dog’s wading in the water Beju’s wading in the water -solo- See that guy dressed in green He’s the cool[est] damn cat that I ever did see
I say, wade in the water Wade out in the water Wade in the water Everybody wade in the water
See that jack dressed in blue You know his waiting sure is through
I said wade now, in the water children Wade now in the water children Wade in the water The hound dogs wading in the water And big mama wading in the water Now how the whole band wading in the water I said wade – oh oh oh yes sir, yes sir – In the water

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Origin Washington, D.C.
Genres Gospel, blues, spoken word
Years active 1973–present
Labels Flying Fish, Rounder Records,Sony Records, Redwood, Music for Little People, Earth Beat!,Rykodisc, Appleseed, Freedomsong Productions (Australia only), SHE ROCKS!
Associated acts Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Website Official site
Members Ysaye Maria Barnwell
Nitanju Bolade Casel
Aisha Kahlil
Louise Robinson
Carol Lynn Maillard
Shirley Childress Saxton

image by masscreation

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