Walter Rhett

Decoding “Wade In the Water”

In Perlo on February 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Harriet Tubman
African-American Refugee Train Crossing the Rappannock River, at the Second Battle of Bull Run, VA, 1862

 I liked the music–it was a big jukebox hit for Ramsey Lewis–and I loved what Alvin Ailey did with it in his famous dance choreography, but I always secretly thought that the advice offered by the spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” was not very smart. Why jump into waters that God stirred up—described in the Bible as “troubled?” It didn’t make any sense. It took me 50 years of darkness in the wilderness of my own self-made blindness before I found out what the slaves who sang the song knew.

People think the song is about Moses and Exodus, but the troubled waters refer to a New Testament verse. The conventional wisdom of history contends the song sent a signal to runaway slaves. Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction wil be fierce. but my first memories of the passsage were of bodies tellling a story; moving like the currents of the Atlantic’s Middle Passage, pulled against the tide, unable to reach back, torn from home, cast over in death, as ethereal as spirits–in Alvin Ailey’s wordless dramatic choreography.

 Alvin Ailey captured the noted Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad’s reappraisal of space and suffering, linking it to living.

My whole being is a dark chant
which will carry you
perpetuating you
to the dawn of eternal growths and
.   .  .
my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your

she says in another poem: 

No one will introduce me to the sunlight


 It is common to believe the traditional space of the slave was roiled with fear and flight. But the slaves exercised a separate reality. The Africans who made it through the troubled waters of the Middle Passage and then found more trouble in their new home didn’t pass the chance to keep their mental skills sharp and learn about a new god. They weren’t so much searching for answers as they were looking for help, protection, comfort. Especially with those millions of friends and kin strung across the Atlantic floor in a garland of dry bones.

In the greatest religious conversion ever–certainly the most startling–the Africans appropriated the god of the slaveholder and planter. They found Jesus not only saved, he delivered. A Charleston Methodist minister thought to be on his death bed received a visit by an African in his congregation, After his prayer, the ailing minister said, “I feel better,” and surprised many when he got out of bed by the third day.

Mainly not taught to read or write, these Africans learned the word of god by hearing. The often memorized scripture and discerned its meaning upon first reading. In their own style, they added flesh to the word, and made it into song. They strengthened the influence of divine power because god was personal and to know his power you had to relate to him.

From the old days, this story telling in song, expressed in the poetry of natural symbols was right up their alley. They took a cup overflowing with suffering and turned the overflow into haunting tones of beauty and power. The idea of a god who entered the world and stirred things up, the power of a god to conquer death, change form, and make round trips between heaven and earth while still being divine, and then leaving behind a little of that spirit for everybody was also a god whose light and mercy and love were present in the midst of trouble.

Mississippi Woman born before the Civil War, 1934.

So on close listening, this was a god who not only saved and protected, who made the wished-for immortal eternal. He provided strength for the journey and made his own kind of trouble.

I didn’t know that back then. Sunday after Sunday, nobody talked why anybody with good sense would wade into troubled waters. I thought maybe it was a temptation or a dare.

All I knew back then was Ramsey’s rhythm of the troubled waters and the haunting elegance of Ailey’s ballet. The dance was a thing of beauty in the midst of sorrow and hope. I had my own doubts about following the path of trouble. You can’t imagine my surprise. When I found out what following that trouble meant.(Cont’d in the next column, pt. 2; click title to view it on its own web page. Click pictures to enlarge.)

Ruins on the site of the Bethesda Pool

  1. Mr. Rhett…I am trying to reach you, hoping that you will be one of my guests on this year’s SPOLETO TODAY broadcasts. I sent a note earlier, but no reply so far, and I have asked Ellen Moryl to find your contact (tel or e-mial) fror me….could you send me anote via the e-mail address above? Many thanks…MARC OVERTON

  2. […] to the Southern Perlo blog, which has a three part series on the Christian background to the song, starting here. Please check it […]

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