The “Wade in the Water” Community Sing


Our shift to online programming in this time of flux and uncertainty has had its share of silver linings! For one, it’s allowed us to offer supplementary programming safely and with relative ease, to meet our teens’ growing need for creative connection. It’s also let us offer opportunities that extend the experience of AIR to our broader community. One such occasion was held earlier this summer – a two-part Community Sing that culminated in a collaborative community recording. Led by teaching artist Roxanne O’Connor, the workshop brought together an enthusiastic and eclectic group of AIR participants, alumnae, staff, board members, teaching artists, and community supporters all gathered to learn the history, melody, and lyrics of a song with deep roots in Arts In Reach: the African-American Spiritual, “Wade in the Water!”  

Arts In Reach teens have been learning and performing “Wade in the Water” for over six years. At AIR we learn an acapella arrangement of the song by Ysäye M. Barnwell, a haunting and still very relevant medley that layers “Wade in the Water” with two other Spirituals: “Motherless Child” and “I Wanna Die Easy.” A fourth part called “The Mud” starts and ends the medley, and serves as its metronome. In this part, which Roxanne describes as “deceptively difficult,” the line “Wade in the Water” is repeated over and over in the key of C, providing a stalwart foundation for the foreground’s interwoven melodies. Learning Barnwell’s arrangement has always been a steadfast highlight for teens in our summer SongWorks program. The lesson didn’t quite fit into the schedule for this year’s virtual SongWorks, so AIR staff decided to offer it as an additional workshop opportunity open to the community! 

Part one of the workshop provided participants with a historical overview of the medley and Spirituals therein. Roxanne outlined the history of “Wade in the Water” from its biblical roots in the New and Old Testaments, through Harriet Tubman’s use of the song and other Spirituals to deliver covert instructions to runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad, which added a new layer of depth, richness, and meaning. We also learned about the resurgence of Spirituals during the 1960s Civil Rights movement and their relevance today as the fight for healing and societal change continues. We ended our session by listening to each part together with a new understanding of significance.

In part two of the workshop, Roxanne coached us on making our own recordings! We practiced each part of the medley together and reviewed the more challenging and granular aspects. Roxanne prepared numerous guides to help us with the recording process. She reviewed best recording practices with us in real time, and provided a typed guide for us to refer to in the process. She created a special YouTube channel just for us complete with “learning” and “sing-along” videos of each part. At the end of the workshop series, participants were instructed to submit audio recordings of one or more parts to AIR staff, who then sent them off to Chris Chase, music engineer and owner of Noise Floor Studios in Dover, for mastering. 

We were so grateful for this opportunity to share the experience of learning “Wade in the Water” with our community. We would also like to thank Roxanne for guiding us through learning and recording the song, the inclusive lesson of its history, and the chance to explore different voices and experiences. “Wade in the Water” showcases all kinds of singing styles and ranges – vocal comfort is bound to be found in one of the song’s four parts. Participants don’t need to know how to read sheet music to learn this song. We learn the lyrics, melody and cadence by “rote,” or by listening to and watching each other.  We love learning “Wade in the Water” because both the medley and our process for learning the song echo the inclusive values we foster at Arts In Reach.

We hope you enjoy our collaboration! Special thanks to Chris Chase for his time, generosity, and masterful production, and all of our all workshop participants for their energy and vocal contributions!

Click here to see Roxanne’s slideshow lesson!

Click here to sing along with Roxanne!

About Roxanne O’Connor:

Roxanne O’Connor is an accomplished music educator and choir director. Roxanne has taken Level 1 and 2 of World Music Drumming, which focuses on the music of West Africa. Through the aforementioned program, she formed a relationship with Ghanaian master drummer, Sowah Mensah, who completed a weeklong residency at Roxanne’s school. Roxanne learned this particular version of “Wade in the Water” while participating in a community choir with Carolyn Parrot, who learned it directly from the arranger, Ysaÿe Barnwell. In addition to being a teaching artist and collaborator with Arts In Reach, Roxanne is the music teacher at Bow Elementary.


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