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The Meanings Behind Wade In The Water

Singing is deeply rooted in the culture of African Americans, and it has great historical significance. Many of the traditional African American songs were brought over by kidnapped slaves in the 18th century.

They used them as a way of communication during the long voyage. A way of possibly identifying those from the same cultures that would recognize the songs. “Wade In The Water” was likely one of those songs.

While that cannot be verified with any real accuracy, it is a deeply significant song for African-Americans.

So, let’s go down to the river…

The Meanings Behind Wade In The Water

We are going to take a brief look at the meanings behind Wade in the Water. Many of the songs that were later given the label “Negro Spirituals” were important to the slaves. But, this song might just be one that had a very special significance. More on that later.

Expressing Feelings

In those days, music was one of the few ways African slaves could express their emotions. They were folk and culture-based songs that were passed down through the generations. And, they tended to have a very religious bias courtesy of the slaves’ continued exposure to Christianity. 

From this came the idea that things would get better. Hence, many of the songs were sad in content but positive in meaning. Eventually, these became the songs that influenced The Blues as we know them today.

Jesse Owens

As time moved on, the slave trade ended, but the color prejudices didn’t. One shocking story revolves around Jesse Owens. He won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and became one of the greatest Olympians.

The story, still believed by many, is that he was personally snubbed by Hitler. Not true, and we know that from Jesse Owens himself. Hitler wanted to congratulate only German winners and did so on the first day. But, he was advised that was not a good idea, so he decided to not congratulate anybody.

Enduring disrespect…

The world leader who did snub Jesse Owens was his own President, Roosevelt. He sent no telegrams of congratulations, Owens had to ride in the back of the bus because of segregation, and was not invited to the White House. 

For the dinner arranged for the Olympians, he had to ride up in the goods lift at the Waldorf Astoria. He was not allowed to use the lift the white people used. This was 1936, not 1836.

The Meanings Behind Wade In The Water – The Lyrics

The Lyrics

But back to the actual song in question. As you may well imagine, the song carries plenty of biblical references. In the Old Testament, there are the stories of the crossing of the Jordan River by the Israelites and the faith needed to accomplish that. The song mentions that.

The New Testament refers to the waters being “troubled” and those who entered being healed. The waters of the River Jordan held plenty of meaning to the slaves. It came to represent freedom and deliverance from oppression. Wading in the waters was a well-known saying and even an activity.

The slaves believed that these “troubled waters” they were experiencing were going to make them better people.

Lyrical Changes

Over the years, there have been plenty of different versions of Wade in the Water. Not surprisingly, given the circumstances of life on earth. But, in every version of the song, the following lines are always present.

“Wade in the water/Wade in the water, children/Wade in the water/God’s a-going to trouble the water.”

Unmistakable references to this idea of its cleansing power and the need to wade in the water.


It can be traced back in various guises to the 1870s. John Wesley Work Jr. collected a series of the songs that were sung at the time. This was one.

It would appear that the first publication of the lyrics was in 1901. The Sunset Four made the first recording of the song in 1925. And since then, there have been multiple versions. For example, this one by The Fisk Jubilee Singers and a great rendition by Mary Mary.

The Composer

It is unlikely that we will ever find out the exact derivation of the Wade In The Water song. Whether it was a combination of other songs just linked together or an actual composition, we will probably never know.

Slaves tended to not get too much in the way of songwriting credits in those days. If it was a man or a woman who composed it, their name is forever lost to history. “Wade in the Water” was just one of those that became known as “sorrow songs.”

The Underground Railroad 

The Underground Railroad was a series of safe houses and routes that were set up to help slaves escape from the South. The routes extended to a variety of places, but Canada was one of the most popular, as were the Free States and even Mexico.

It was set up in the mid-1800s and just before. It was helped in its cause by abolitionists and people sympathetic to those against the slave trade.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Harriet’s was a name that became associated with the Underground. She became a heroine by making several trips into the deep south and leading over seventy escaped slaves to freedom via the Railroad. 

And it is here that maybe the importance of this song takes on another perspective. It becomes more than just a song sung by slaves. Let’s go back to its importance.

A Part of a Code?

There is nothing confirmed in writing, of course. But, it is widely believed that this is one of the songs Harriet Tubman used as a code for the fleeing slaves. 

She had songs that the slaves were encouraged to sing at various parts of the journey or when circumstances demanded it. They formed part of a code.

Harriet was known to have taken certain Spirituals that all the slaves would know. All of the songs the slaves would be very familiar with, which is why she chose them. In the lyrics were little messages giving instructions. “Wade in the water” is quite obvious. Everybody in the river, but why?

The Hunt

The slave owners would send out people to hunt for escaped slaves, and they would often use dogs in the pursuit. “Wade in the water” was used to tell those fleeing to get off the track and into the water. The dogs couldn’t follow the scent.

The locals didn’t see anything strange in this behavior at all. They were used to hearing black people sing, so it was nothing new. There were a series of these songs that gave instructions and doubtless saved many lives.

Want To Learn More About Music?

If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Album Covers of All Time, the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time20 Different Types of Rock MusicWhat is Otacore Music, and What Is Music Without Lyrics Called for more interesting information.

And, if The Blues are your bag, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Blues Guitars, the Best Guitar Pedals For Blues, the Best Hollow And Semi-Hollow Guitars, the Best Blues Harmonicas, the Best Tenor Saxophones, and the Best Trumpet you can buy in 2023.

The Meanings Behind Wade In The Water – Final Thoughts

“Wade in the Water” held a special place in the hearts of the slaves. It was a song about hope and freedom that was sung almost daily. It became part of the support system that helped the fleeing slaves to escape to safe places. That sets it above being called just an ordinary song.

When it is sung today, as it is, the meaning resonates with the ancestors of those it affected most. And even today, people still write about that most inglorious period of history. Sade offered her take on the subject in “Slave Song.”

“Wade in the Water” has meaning, but it could mean different things to different people depending on the circumstance. Yet, after over 150 years, that meaning is still very relevant.

Until next time, sing loud, sing proud.

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