The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
What So Rare as a Day in June

What So Rare as a Day in June

#361 / June 14 Podcast

The Flood rolled into Huntington’s West End last Sunday to enjoy a simply perfect June afternoon, performing at a picnic to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the city’s beloved Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

What memories were made! Children and parents playing in the grassy field. Fun competitions for the kids, such as donut-eating contests. Old friends visiting and story-telling over hot food and cold drinks.

For its part, the band wanted to augment its usual sets of rowdy party tunes with a respectable mix of religious numbers. Topping the list was one of the oldest songs in the repertoire. For this week’s podcast, here from The Flood’s first set of the afternoon is “Wade in the Water.”

The Song’s Long History

This old spiritual — one of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “sorrow songs” (because they were associated with songs of the Underground Railroad) — was first published in 1901 in Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers by John Wesley Work II and his brother, Frederick J. Work, an educator at Nashville’s historically black college, Fisk University.

The Sunset Four Jubilee Singers made the first commercial recording of "Wade in the Water" in 1925 for Paramount Records.

Since then, numerous recordings and publications of it have appeared with variations on the lyrics, including both secular and religious renderings. Even pop and jazz artists have taken turns with the tune.

In 1966, for instance, “Wade in the Water” was a popular instrumental hit for The Ramsey Lewis Trio, which prompted further instrumental recordings by other artists. The Flood’s favorite version, however, is that of the late, great folksinger Odetta in 1954.

The Song’s Meaning

Over the years, much discussion has centered on the source of the lyric “God's gonna trouble the water.” Perhaps the most learned interpretation of its meaning comes from professor Howard Thurman of Howard and Boston universities, who said he believed the line refers to a Bible story about a healing by Jesus (Book of John, chapter 5, verses 1-9).

In that story, a sick man tells Jesus he is unable to get cured in the pool of Bethesda because he cannot get into the water quickly enough when it is "troubled," that is, stirred up or agitated.

Verse 4 tells of an angel going down into the pool and stirring the water, adding, “Whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had."

Said Thurman, “This is the message of the spiritual. Do not shrink from moving confidently out into choppy seas. Wade in the water, because God is troubling the water."

Okay, but what about the Underground Railroad’s connection with “Wade in the Water”?

Civil War freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, who made 13 trips to the South and helped free more than 70 people, used the song, Thurman said, to tell escaping slaves “to get off the trail and into the water to make sure the dogs slave catchers used couldn’t sniff out their trail.”

In the Floodisphere

As reported earlier in Flood Watch, The Flood’s connection to the song starts with the band’s fourth studio album, on which “Wade in the Water” is the title track.

As noted recently, the song also led in 2012 to the band’s debut on Canadian television. Click here to read that story.

Finally, playing the song over the years sometimes has led to rare bits of religious reflections. Here’s a favorite chunk of Flood chatter from a 2011 jam session. Click the button below to hear the late Dave Peyton tell how his Methodist mother was persuaded to cover all her bases with a little secret wading in the water of her own:

Mother Peyton's Secret Baptism

You Want More Church-y Tunes?

By the way, The Flood’s eclectic repertoire includes a right reverent set of religious songs, as you can hear in the “Gospel Hour” show in the “Special Blends” playlists built into the free Radio Floodango music streaming service.

Click here to read all about it.

The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: