“DOWN TO THE RIVER TO PRAY”
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened. Luke 3:21
The traditional Appalachian song “Down in the River to Pray” is well-known, especially since Alison Krauss and the Movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (released in 2000) popularized it. Yet, its composer remains a mystery, at least in some measure.
Research indicates the song was written by slaves in the 19th Century who worked in the fields. Other people believe it was perhaps a derivative of a native American tribal song that was adapted with Christian lyrics. It was reportedly published in Southern Harmony, a 19th Century hymnal, prior to many African-American spiritual songs being gathered and published during the Civil War and the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. And, what if someone told you it was written by George H. Allan in Nashville, Tennesse during slavery in the South, and was published in a slave songbook in 1867? Its appearance in “Slave Songs of the United States” in 1867, with words uniquely colloquial to black slave spiritual songs of that period, seems to point us in that direction to this song’s genealogy. The song had a different name, too, than the one by which we commonly know it today. The song as originally composed was known as “The Good Old Way” and is attributed to a G. H. (George H.) Allan in the contents section of the slave song book of 1867. The song may also be known as “Come, Let Us All Go Down”, but has also been known as “Down to the River to Pray”, and alternately as “Down in the River to Pray. However, as originally constructed by Mr. Allan (or perhaps some other contemporary, most likely a slave), the song entreats worshippers to go to a valley, not a river…
What valley? If George Allan were a slave, or at least was a song collector in Nashville, one would suspect the valley is somewhere in Tennessee – lots of valleys are there. As shown in the songbook, “The Good Old Way” was #104, and was among a collection of spirituals in Part III of that book, in which the song’s origins are the inland slave states of Tennessee, Arkansas, and the Mississippi River Valley. So, perhaps slaves from Arkansas or the Mississippi Valley could have been the original composers, instead.
There is lots more that’s intriguing about this song, and many questions linger. For those who changed the word ‘valley’ to ‘river’, what was significant about going to a river? And, for those who want to go into the river to pray (and not just to the river), is that an implied message about baptism? Whatever the message, the composer was thinking of family, as mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers are addressed. I can imagine a slave family clinging to one another in this song’s embrace. And we’re all sinners, the song’s conclusion reminds us. Isn’t it interesting that a song from slaves still resonates in our culture 150 years later? Jesus never ages or grows weak with age. He is with always whether we stand on the banks of the river or immerse ourselves in its cleansing waters. All we need do is acknowledge his presence and our fears melt away.
I received a request for a song whose roots were in Bluegrass. While researching I came across this song which is on the “favorites” list of many. Although, most Bluegrass music is associated with a particular style of stringed instruments, especially the banjo of Earl Scruggs. As a child, listening to the Grand Ole Opry was a family tradition, and this song was performed often, but never with instrumentation. In addition to listening to the music on the radio, I was also awakened every morning to some form of instrument blasting from the bow or fingers of my father as he emulated these great musicians. The Alison Kraus acapella version below is truly beautiful. In addition, I finally found a clawhammer banjo version as well. Enjoy!
Alison Kraus & Berklee Gospel Choir: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CJfxaWRkNs
Clawhammer Banjo rendition by Mark Johnson & Emory Lester: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRpdfz_MLdo
Grace and Peace to you!