Updated: Feb 19, 2021
South Carolina baptism by Doris Ulmann
The first song we are going to analyze is called Wade in the Water. This song falls under the classification of an African-American folk song or Negro spiritual.
Before analyzing this song I want to examine two important points about the origin and function of AfAm (African-American) folk songs.
(1) It is commonly understood that in addition to expressing the emotion of enslavement, negro spirituals were sometimes use to encode messages that encouraged and advised enslaved Africans on how to escape slavery. In addition to Wade in the Water other such songs include Sweet Chariot, Follow the Drinking Gourd,
Steal Away, Travelling Shoes etc.
(2) When enslaved Africans came to the Americas and the Caribbean from their various cultural backgrounds there was a very strategic effort to strip them of their culture by forcing them to speak European languages, to abandon their spiritual practices and to only consume media that was carefully selected by their enslavers. The bible is a prime example of such media.
I am a firm believer that Africans throughout the diaspora engaged in a translation process when interacting with European culture. They took their core beliefs and gravitated towards things within this new alien culture that to some degree mimicked what they already knew and held dear. For example enslaved Africans in various parts of the Caribbean gravitated towards Catholic saints that in some way mirrored the deities they were already familiar with and masked their spiritual practices behind the veil of Catholicism/Christianity. This occurred in places like Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad and even the U.S..
If one has no understanding of any West African cultures one would assume that enslaved Africans were simply a blank slate and would therefore analyze African diasporic cultural practices i.e. oral traditions at a very surface level.
For example one consistent theme you will see in AfAm folk songs is references to the river or water. At face value one would assume these are simply replications of biblical themes but if you study prominent West African cultures you will see a similar theme of the river playing an important cultural and spiritual role. I am a firm believer that these AfAm (African American) folks songs represent expressions of African core cultural beliefs that never died.
Let's examine the chorus of the African-American folk song Wade in the Water:
Wade in the water
Wade in the water
Wade in the water
Children wade in the water
God's gonna trouble the water
This song has multiple meanings. Functionally it encodes instructions for enslaved Africans who sought escape from the horrors of slavery. It advises them to seek out the river to wash away their scent thereby preventing the enslaver's bloodhounds from tracking them down. This song also has biblical significance that I won't discuss today.
Lastly I believe this song recognizes the healing power of the river.
It instructs the listeners to 'wade' in the water because spiritually the river is also healing. This is a theme present in many West African cultures.
The line "God's gonna trouble the water" refers to agitating the water and creating turbulence.
In my opinion this line is recognizing the divine power of the river while also saying that if this power is one's side then it can offer strong protection. In the next song we will see a similar theme.
Preparing for Baptism by Doris Ulmann
Next we will look at a powerful song for the Yorùbá deity Ọ̀ṣun:
Yorùbá folk song for Ọ̀ṣun
Omi ò l'ápá, omi gbégi
Water doesn't have arms, it carries away the tree
Omi ò l'ẹ́sẹ̀, omi gbénìyàn lọ
Water doesn't have legs, it carries away/drowns the person
Ìforó ayé mi ni omi gbé lọ
The trouble of my world, water carried away
Ìdààmú ayé mi ni omi gbé lọ
The stress of my world, water carried away
Gbogbo abíkú ayé mi omi gbé lọ
Stillbirths of my world, water carried away
Ọ̀ṣun is a prominent river deity of the Yorùbá people. Although the Ọ̀ṣun river is located in Nigeria, she has become known world wide due to the transatlantic slave trade. There are also many other significant river deities recognized throughout Yorùbá land.
The first part of the song is speaking about the power of the river and of the deity Ọ̀ṣun.
It says that even though water doesn't have arms or legs it can carry away/remove any obstacles. There are also other Yorùbá folk songs and proverbs that speak about the power of water.
Let's look at two Yorùbá proverbs that speak to this idea:
Iná tó ńlérí omi á kù sọnù.
The fire that challenges water will die off.
Omí wọ́ yanrìn gbẹrẹrẹ, bẹ́ẹ̀ni omi ò lọ́wọ́, omi ò lẹ́sẹ̀.
Water drags the sand about, and yet water lacks hands and lacks legs
In the second portion of this song we then ask the river/Ọ̀ṣun to use that same power to carry away all of our troubles and protect us. In the last song, we recognized a similar power that the river possesses in the line about God (divine powers) "troubling" the water. We also asked for this power to protect us from being caught and taken back to the horrors of slavery.
Some will say these connections are vague but again I believe our ancestors created songs and gravitated toward biblical themes that spoke to the cultural ideas they already held dear; in this case giving reverence to the spirit of the river.
Me (Adetayo) sitting at the Ọ̀ṣun river, Nigeria
Hundreds gather at the river Ọ̀ṣun during the annual Osun-Osogbo festival
Next we will analyze a song for the Akan deity Asuo Gyebi:
Akan folk song for Asuo Gyebi
Asuo e yɛfrɛ me asuo o
River, they call me river
Asuo gyebi e yɛfrɛ me asuo
River gyebi, they call me river
Wɔhwɛ me a, yɛfrɛ me asuo
If they look at me, they call me river
Wɔnhwɛ me a, yɛfrɛ me asuo
If they don't look at me, they call me river
This song speaks about Asuo Gyebi, an Akan (Ghana) river deity. River deities are very prominent in traditional Akan spiritual practice and in general rivers are seen as sacred. There are countless other Akan songs and proverbs that illustrate the river's importance in detail.
This song is saying that Asuo Gyebi and other river spirits will always be there as a source of protection and healing.
The ancient rivers are there even when we refuse to acknowledge them.
There is a popular riddle which also illustrates the reverence Akan culture gives to its rivers and it begins with the question:
Asuo twa ɔkwan, ɔkwan twa asuo, ɔpanin ne hwan?
The road crosses the river, the river crosses the road, which is eldest?
If we skip to end of the riddle the question is answered as such:
Asuo no firi tete.
The river (is) from ancient.
Asuo no firi Odomankoma ɔbɔadeɛ
The river(is) from Odomankoma (God), the one who created all things.
This riddle is saying that the river is a divine creation and that well before man created the road or anything else the river was already present.
Boys playing in the Tano river which runs across large portions of Ghana and is recognized for its spiritual significance by many cultures
I want to parallel this with how African Americans viewed/interacted with the river during and after enslavement.
In the folk song, Wade in the water, we can clearly see how the river is viewed as a source of protection, refuge and solace.
In some locales crossing the river literally meant you made it to freedom.
Also if we look at the lyrics of other river related African American folks songs and religious rituals we can see that symbolically the river represents an escape from the harshness of slavery and continued oppression.
This is not arbitrary.
Having come from societies and cultures that revered their rivers, enslaved Africans clung to and passed on these ideals and values to their children.
If we treat enslavement as the beginning of the African American experience then our understanding of African American spiritual practices, musical traditions etc. will remain myopic and shallow.
Owomoyela, Oyekan. Yoruba Proverbs. University of Nebraska Press, 2005.