Wade in the Water Wade in the Water, Children Wade in the Water God’s gonna trouble the water. 19th Century Negro Spiritual The lyrics above are known all around the world. They’ve been recorded by everyone from the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who were the first known singing group to record Wade in the Water, to Blues Legend Big Momma Thorton, the noted multi-genre singer, Bob Dylan and the jazz great Ramsey Lewis and the Ramsey Lewis Trio. This Negro spiritual and several other songs like it, including City Called Heaven, Steal Away to Jesus and Soon Ah Will be Done, are all the beginnings of the legacy of Gospel Music. Gospel music is born out of the spiritual and blues tradition. The impact of the traditional Negro spiritual cannot be understated considering many of the songs mentioned above have been recorded by various artists from various genres under the guise of the Gospel tradition. It is the essence of the African American oral tradition. For the Negro spiritual is not simply © Tiphany Overzat about the praise, reverence and worship to Jesus or God; it is also about a longing to be free and the journey it takes to get there. For example, Wade in the Water is advising slaves who are escaping bondage how to trek through the water to make their way to freedom.
These songs were sung a capella or without music; just the syncopated rhythm provided by the voices and hand claps (in church or during celebrations) by the slaves themselves. The musical presentation is probably the biggest distinction between the Negro spiritual and Gospel music. For just as the spirituals provided hope and guidance, so does Gospel music. Like the traditional Negro hymns, Gospel lyrics are born out of the Christian context and further communicate not just messages of spiritual hope but also perseverance. Gospel music is born out of the blues and jazz tradition. Probably the most famous blues musician and writer to define early Gospel is Thomas A.
Dorsey. Dorsey’s genius was in combining elements of his musical education, the Chicago sound and lyric writing ability to produce songs that not only spoke to the soul lyrically but also rhythmically. His most famous song is Take my Hand, Precious Lord and was written out of Dorsey’s despair over the death of his wife, Nettie, in childbirth. The song is a haunting confession of grief’s simultaneous feeling of fatigue and hope. It has been published in over 40 languages and sung by artists such as Nina Simone, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Beyonce. Its continued popularity and global appeal speaks to the strength of Gospel music internationally. Gospel music has long had global appeal.
International reception of the African American spiritual genre has always been generous. In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, early gospel quartets like the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Orpheus McAdoo’s Virginia Jubilee Singers had success in South Africa with McAdoo’s group performing there for a five years; but they also traveled to other parts of the world like England, Australia and India. In the 50’s and 60’s artists like Mahalia Jackson and the Clara Ward Singers performed in Europe and Vietnam. At the end of the 60s, there was a shift in the traditional gospel sound to the more contemporary gospel sound, which features more of a rhythmic section with drums and bass tones.Edwin Hawkins is considered one of the pioneers of this modern genre of Gospel. His song, Oh Happy Day, reached not only national success but also global success. In 1969, it reached number 1 on the charts in Europe. This song has been published in several languages and like Dorsey’s Take My Hand Precious Lord, has been recorded by several artists here in the states and overseas. Hawkins’ success garnered success for others like Gospel Music Workshop of America, Shirley Caesar and internationally awarded James Cleveland, whose success overseas began in the 60s and continued until his death. The appeal of Gospel music continues to grow overseas. Gospel artists are performing in Africa, Australia, across Europe and Asia. Performers like Donnie McClurkin, Fred Hammond, Israel Houghton and Kirk Franklin perform abroad. The secret of success of Gospel music is really no secret at all. The music has universal appeal. The spirit-filled messages of hope, resolve and worship transcend race and nationality.
McClurkin in the 2011 article, “Face of Gospel Music No Longer Just Black or American,” is quoted as saying “Gospel music is not black and not American. It is global… there are so many different genres of Gospel music. There are so many cultures that make up Gospel music. The thing about Gospel music is that its message stays the same even though the music changes with the times.” McClurkin’s point underscores the evolution of Gospel: whether in the States or abroad, it’s clear the inspirational musical messages are here to stay. Raquel Wanzo is a native of the Bay Area. She is a writer, lover of poetry and black history and currently, she is a part-time English Professor at Laney College in Oakland, California.
Raquel Wanzo is a native of the Bay Area. She is a writer, lover of poetry and black history and currently, she is a part-time English Professor at Laney College in Oakland, California.