History Through Song

The first time I heard the song “Wade in the Water,” I was a freshman in high school scrolling through Spotify. I came across the artist Jamie N Commons, whose voice caught my attention, and so I looked around on his page. At the time, one of his more recent covers was “Wade in the Water” and so I clicked on it and gave it a listen. Without knowing its deeper meaning, I loved the song. The way Commons sang the song with his low and raspy voice captivated me, and so I continued to listen to it.   

Four years later, I found myself at Geneseo, enrolled in a multitude of different classes, including a writing seminar on the Civil Rights Movement. While sitting in class one early Tuesday morning, Dr. Crosby showed us a video on singing in the Civil Rights Movement. Lo and behold, the activists in the video were singing the song “Wade in the Water.” While it wasn’t exactly Common’s raspy, low voice I had grown accustomed to in high school, the lyrics and the beat were the same. It was undeniably the same song.  

While I truly enjoyed the cover by Commons, after this class I began to investigate other covers of the song. Although many people covered the song, African American artists seemed to cover the song the most. The song was commonly sung during the Civil Rights Movement, as singing was a form of unity for the African Americans and a form of passive resistance against racist whites. With a greater understanding of the lyrics and context of the song, I fell in love with it even more.  

In class, we watched a documentary on Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all women African American band, that too covered the song “Wade in the Water.” In the documentary, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a well-known Civil Rights activist and singer, discussed how freedom songs, like “Wade in the Water” had no owner. The songs were free. Additionally, she discussed how every time these songs were sung, they changed. Each person’s voice and each person’s sound changed the meaning of the song. I found this to be a beautiful concept. Given the multiple singers I had heard singing the song, and the different ways it made me feel each time, I agreed with this concept.   

In Reagon’s article, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” Reagon plays with the idea of how African American’s are often expected to balance two different cultures. Oftentimes, African Americans are expected to practice their heritage at home, but it is also assumed that they get an education and participate in the “Western” society. She explains the difficulties with the process of straddling stating, “How does one find a personal balance when one is called to work across cultures which many times operate with opposing and conflicting values and motions?” Within this struggle comes the question of music. People like Reagon must decide whether they want to communicate African American history to the current world through song or not. She writes, “We now must consider whether we are up to the opportunity to be carriers and thus transmitters of the full load that history is.” According to Reagon, Singing a freedom song is more than singing any other song.  In fact, it is a task, a duty, and can only be properly conveyed if sung with soul.  

In reading Reagon’s stance, a question arises. As previously mentioned, the first time I heard the song “Wade in the Water,” a white male, Jamie N Commons, was covering it. Since Commons is not an African American who can personally relate to this history, or to the struggle of straddling societies, can he properly transmit the song? Commons sings the song with soul and signature, but does this qualify as a genuine communication of history?  

While I have continued to ponder this idea, I have yet to form a final thought and answer in my mind. I believe that this is a very intricate question to attend to, and so I will leave it to this post’s readers to consider and form an answer for themselves.

One Reply to “History Through Song”

  1. This is a really interesting question. There are plenty of non-black musicians (and artists in general) who appreciate historically black art forms/subject matter, like Artie Shaw and Buddy Rich. Arguably, there are other people who explicitly use historically black art forms/subject matter for controversy and financial gain, such as Dana Schutz.
    I think one important aspect of this question is whether the artist has done research and credited their inspirations. Bruno Mars is an example of an artist who makes music in the funk genre and gives credit to artists like James Brown, New Edition, and Luther Vandross. To take this further, Hozier in his song Nina Cried Power researched names of female jazz singers/activists and wrote the song with black jazz singer Mavis Staples. This act of research and inclusion emphasized Hozier’s commitment to paying tribute instead of being a performative ally at best and culturally appropriating at worst. I don’t think that non-black people should not participate in making historically black music, because talent and passion are valuable. But I think that research and inclusion are even more important, especially when art has the ability to spread to corners that weren’t possible before.

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