The Shift to the Concert Stage: “Wade in the Water” and the American Spiritual

“The Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.”

-W.E.B. Du Bois from The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

Originating among enslaved African-Americans during the Antebellum era, the spiritual is one of the most important genres of American music. These songs were traditionally sung in various functions and provided enslaved peoples with hope for freedom through religious and coded messages. “Wade in the Water” was one such spiritual and served as an important song along the Underground Railroad–leading enslaved peoples to escape by water to avoid tracking dogs–and in religious settings as a baptismal song. “Wade in the Water” and other spirituals continue to influence American music and culture and have transformed into other genres such as the concert spiritual and gospel. 

After the end of the Civil War, the African-American community went through a transformative period as formerly enslaved peoples gained their freedom. African-Americans were also allowed to pursue careers in music and entertainment outside of the racist minstrel tradition, one of the most popular forms of entertainment at the time. “Wade in the Water” and many other spirituals reflected these new opportunities as the concert spiritual developed, a musical form that combines traditions of spirituals and classical song. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the concert spiritual helped champion respect for African-Americans despite the pervasiveness of racism throughout the United States. However, to incorporate “Wade in the Water” into the concert spiritual genre, composers made several alterations to the performance and composition of the song.

In 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a small vocal ensemble, initiated the creation of the concert spiritual while fundraising for Fisk University. They were also the first group to perform spirituals in concert halls and transcribe spirituals for traditional choirs. Throughout the late 1800s, the Fisk Jubilee Singers became widely revered and transcended racial barriers, with audiences highly praising the group: “The harmony of these children of nature, and their musical execution, were beyond the reach of art.” “Wade in the Water” was also introduced as a concert spiritual by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and was published in 1901 in New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This arrangement became the basis for many future arrangements of the spiritual, establishing the melody in a classical style and the basic harmonic pattern. The Fisk Jubilee Singers also used a classical style of singing, which contrasted the traditional singing styles of enslaved peoples. These contributions were integral to the development of the stylistic and musical development of the concert spiritual. 

African-American composers also began arranging “Wade in the Water” for piano and trained solo voice, a genre known as classical song. Harry T. Burleigh was an especially influential composer for popularizing classical song forms of spirituals with his arrangement of “Deep River” in 1917. Burleigh was also the first to arrange “Wade in the Water” as an art song in his 1917 book The Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh. Burleigh’s arrangement of “Wade in the Water” made several important changes to the song to increase the difficulty and emotional impact of the song. Unlike many other arrangements, Burleigh made fundamental changes to the melody of “Wade in the Water” during the verses. Burleigh also transposes the melody up an octave at the end of the piece, which creates a stronger emotional climax, but also makes the song more difficult to sing. Harry T. Burleigh’s arrangement of “Wade in the Water” introduced several important musical elements that influenced future interpretations of the spiritual. 

Led by Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and other African-American musicians, the concert spiritual became an important part of vocal recitals across the United States. In addition to changes in musical characteristics, performance traditions of “Wade in the Water” and other spirituals shifted to conform to classical music conventions. The concert spiritual utilizes the Western-trained singing style common among classically trained singers. This not only contrasts the traditional singing styles of enslaved Africans, but contrasts other derivatives of folk spirituals like gospel, which encourage performers to include improvisational elements and ornamentations. Traditionally, African singing styles utilize pentatonic scale, improvisation, pitch bending or sliding, and the inclusion of other sounds, such as throat singing, growls, grunting, and others, that were abandoned for the smooth and prescribed style of classical singing. In addition, the concert spiritual was accompanied by piano, a practice that was uncommon among enslaved peoples due to restrictions created by enslavers. As it became a staple in American classical vocal repertoire, the performance of the concert spiritual became more prescribed to comply with classical performance standards and styles. 

The concert spiritual is one of America’s most powerful art forms and demonstrates the diverse influences on American music. As the concert spiritual developed, “Wade in the Water” transformed into a staple in American classical vocal repertoire through alterations in harmony, melody, accompaniment, and performance style. Through contributions by composers and musicians such as Harry T. Burleigh, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson, “Wade in the Water” transcended racial barriers to unite musicians and audiences through its impactful melody and message.

Jordan Key

During the 2020-2021 academic year, I was grateful to assist the Song of America project through the University of Michigan’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP).


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