Now, y’all know I’m gonna tell you a story about our ancestors. It is with gratitude and a pride so deep in our ancestors who endured so much and in spite of their human condition, made a way out of no way. They kept these stories alive, by sharing their oral history within the spirituals. One such spiritual was Wade In The Water.
Wade In The Water is one of the spirituals that has many secret codes embedded within the song apart from the lyrics referencing the Christian tradition of baptism. Often the religious rite of sprinkling water onto a person’s forehead or of the immersion of a person’s body in water, or as the Bible tells the story of John the Baptist baptized people in the river it symbolizes purification and choosing to live your life in the Christian faith.
For the slaves in addition to their faith in God, secret codes were used in the spirituals to give guidance to the slave as he embarked on his journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad. The secret code in ‘Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water’ for the slaves trying to escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad, meant to be aware that one of the methods used by the slave masters to track runaway slaves down was to send their bloodhounds out to track down the slave. So the lyrics were instruction for the runaway slave if they could hear the bloodhounds were close behind they needed to find a body of water and wade in water, because if you were in water the bloodhounds could no longer pick up their scent and the slave would be safe from the dogs tracking them down.
Also in the lyrics ‘See that band all dressed in red, looks like the band that Moses led’ -It is thought that the lyrics reference Harriet Tubman whose nickname was ‘Moses of her people’. Many of the spirituals lyrics have dual meanings in the songs and in this song Moses and Harriet Tubman’s names were interchangeable because Harriet like the story in the Bible where Moses led the slaves to freedom, Harriet did the same for the slaves in the 1800’s in America.
In the last verse of Wade in the Water the lyrics are: If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed, follow me down to Jordan’s stream – In the Bible there are several references to the Jordan River, and what the Jordan River meant to the slaves here in America was the secret code name for the Ohio River. If the slave could get across the Ohio River he or she would be free.
Not only could the lyrics have instruction for the slave, it was also important to note the tone of the singer of the song. Both the lyrics and the tone in ‘if you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed’ was meant to be a dare or a challenge for you to face your fears because if you dared to cross the Ohio river you would be free or as the slaves put it you will be ‘redeemed’.
And with most spirituals including Wade in the Water you can sense that the slave is completely trusting God to deliver justice either now or in heaven and that they believed and found real hope in God’s promise that if ‘you ask it shall be given’. Enjoy!