By Richard Lee
“Wade in the Water,” the song that greeted the St. Bonaventure University men’s basketball teams during the 1960s and 1970s, returned to campus on Dec. 7 when the Bona community celebrated the 50th anniversary of its Final Four basketball team.
But the song’s history predates the days when Bob Lanier graced the court at Bona’s, and its legacy is much greater than a sports anthem.
Songs such as “Wade in the Water” were used to help slaves escape to freedom. The songs contained coded language that served as messages to slaves.
“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,” Calvin Earl, an expert on the history of African American Spirituals, explained on his website.
“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,” he added.
Earl also noted that the song’s reference to the Jordan River was part of the coded message because it represented the Ohio River, which was the dividing line between slavery and freedom on the Underground Railroad.
“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,” he wrote. “If the slave could get across the Ohio River he or she would be free.”
In addition to Earl, several scholars and historians have written similar articles about the role “Wade in the Water” played in African American history. A few examples are below.
- Do you know the secret codes in the spiritual Wade In The Water?
- Hippocrene Guide; The Underground Railroad; 1994
- History of Hymns: “Wade in the Water”
- Pathways to Freedom Society
- Songs of the Underground Railroad
- Wade in the Water: Transference Actualization and the Ethics of Memory—Discussion of Bartlett’s “Time-Soaked”