Hear Wade in the Water: An Unprecedented 26-Hour-Long Exploration of the African American Sacred Music Tradition

Pho­to of Mahalia Jack­son by Dave Brinkman, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

It may well be a tru­ism to say that Amer­i­can music is African Amer­i­can music, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And when we reduce truths down to tru­isms they lose the gran­u­lar detail that makes them inter­est­ing and rel­e­vant. Every­one knows, for exam­ple, that there would be no rock and roll with­out Robert John­son at the cross­roads and Lit­tle Richard in his sequined jack­et and pom­padour. But how many peo­ple know that with­out North Car­oli­na-born Les­ley Rid­dle, A.P. Carter’s one­time musi­cal part­ner, folk and coun­try music as we know it might not exist?

Like­wise, Negro Spir­i­tu­als and the black gospel tra­di­tion are legendary—birthing such tow­er­ing fig­ures as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. But that his­to­ry has often been turned into stereo­type, an easy ref­er­ence for down-home authen­tic­i­ty. Divorced from their roots, easy evo­ca­tions of African Amer­i­can gospel glide over a com­plex tapes­try of syn­cretism and syn­chronic­i­ty, inno­va­tion and preser­va­tion, and the build­ing of local and nation­al com­mu­ni­ties with a glob­al scope and pres­ence.

Black sacred music touch­es every part of U.S. his­to­ry. To hear this his­to­ry in gran­u­lar detail, you need to hear NPR’s just-re-released audio series Wade in the Water: African Amer­i­can Sacred Music Tra­di­tions. First released in 1994 by NPR and the Smith­son­ian, the 26-part doc­u­men­tary details “the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can gospel music and its impact on soul, jazz and R&B.” The series begins with a con­cep­tu­al overview and car­ries us all the way through to the con­tem­po­rary gospel scene.

Along the way, we learn about region­al scenes, the growth and world­wide pop­u­lar­i­ty of the Jubilee singers who so inspired W.E.B. Du Bois, the lined hymn and shaped-note tra­di­tions, and the use of gospel as a doc­u­men­tary medi­um itself, chron­i­cling the sink­ing of the Titan­ic, the Depres­sion, World Wars I and II, and more. Sacred music sup­port­ed Civ­il Rights strug­gles, and move­ment lead­ers like Fan­nie Lou Hamer sang as they marched and orga­nized, a pow­er­ful sound folk singers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan picked up and emu­lat­ed.

Talk­ing about music can only take us so far. Wade in the Water suc­ceed­ed by keep­ing music at the cen­ter, even releas­ing a four-CD set, with exten­sive lin­er notes. This time around, the dig­i­tal release comes with Spo­ti­fy playlists like the one above in which you can hear a sam­pling of songs from the series. Here you’ll find the usu­al crossover gospel greats—Aretha, the Sta­ple Singers, Bil­ly Pre­ston, Mahalia Jack­son, BeBe and Cece Winans. You’ll also hear unknown com­mu­ni­ty groups like a Demopo­lis, Alaba­ma Con­gre­ga­tion singing “Come and Go with Me” and the Gatling Funer­al Home singing “Gatling Devo­tion­al.”

The series was researched, pro­duced, and pre­sent­ed by Ber­nice John­son Reagon, who is both a liv­ing exam­ple and a his­to­ri­an of the African Amer­i­can musi­cal tra­di­tion. A founder of the SNCC Free­dom Singers dur­ing the Civ­il Rights move­ment, she went on to found and direct Sweet Hon­ey in the Rock, who appear in Wade in the Water and the playlist above. Reagon earned her Ph.D. from Howard Uni­ver­si­ty and pub­lished sev­er­al schol­ar­ly books on the his­to­ry she explores in the doc­u­men­tary series. Learn more about her (and hear more of her music) here, and hear all 26 episodes of Wade in the Water at NPR.

via metafil­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

African-Amer­i­can His­to­ry: Mod­ern Free­dom Strug­gle (A Free Course from Stan­ford) 

Hear the First Record­ed Blues Song by an African Amer­i­can Singer: Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920)

Eliz­a­beth Cot­ten Wrote “Freight Train” at 11, Won a Gram­my at 90, and Changed Amer­i­can Music In-Between

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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