Wade in the Water has held a special place in my heart for many years. The Hogan arrangement was one of the first pieces I ever conducted, and I still remember the chills that ran up and down my spine when my friend Amy Nicholson nailed the high note at the end. Years later, renowned soprano (and Randolph School alumna) Susanna Phillips joined the Randolph Concert Choir in performing that same arrangement for the school's 50th anniversary celebration. Somewhere between those two experiences, I arranged the melody as an educational experience for my 4th and 5th grade general music students. To truly understand the power of this spiritual, one needs to understand its context.
The African-American spiritual is a genre of depth, warmth, joy, and sorrow. It is both a testament to optimism in the worst of times and a window into the tortured community that birthed these timeless texts and melodies. Spirituals began as an entirely a cappella form, created and sung not by individuals, but by a community working together to revise and improve this music over multiple generations. The Fisk Jubilee Singers married these songs to European bel canto singing, and made them a staple of the concert hall.
As with much music from primarily aural traditions, spirituals typically have multiple verses, and these may differ depending on when and where they were first written down. Additionally, many may have served dual purposes. On their surface, spirituals reference stories or lessons from the Bible, but these stories and lessons were, in many cases, forced upon them by an oppressive and abusive culture. Such situations may have given rise to the many spirituals that reference past or future justice or punishment: God’s Gonna Set This World on Fire and The Battle of Jericho, for example.
In other places, slaves were forbidden from learning about the Bible, because slave-owners feared that the gospel would inspire a thirst for freedom and incite a revolution. Here, spirituals would have been sung privately, with great fear of punishment. They may also have born coded messages to facilitate escapes. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, This Train, and The Gospel Train point to the Underground Railroad. The Jordan River was a stand-in for the Ohio River—the border between slave and free states. Wade in the Water served as a reminder to step in and out of creeks and rivers along the journey in order to confuse the dogs who were tracking them. Additionally, its multiple references to Israel escaping slavery in Egypt under Moses’s leadership provided hope that such an Exodus could happen once again.
This setting is designed for maximum flexibility. For a unison performance, everyone sings Part 1. Two-part trebles can sing Parts 1 and 2, and two-part men (all with changed voices) can sing Parts 1 and 2, an octave lower. For SAB, sing Parts 1, 2, and 4. For SSA, sing Parts 1, 2, and 3. Boys with changing voices can sing Part 3, and can be joined by low altos or high tenors as appropriate. See and purchase the score at CadenzaOne.com.
For more information on Spirituals, visit NegroSpirituals.com
Given the history of spirituals and the continuing consequences of the injustice that surrounded their creation, I will donate half of my proceeds from this arrangement to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.