Down in the River to Pray

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"Down in the River to Pray"
Down to the river to pray sheet music.gif
Sheet music cover
Published1867 (1867)
GenreGospel music

"Down in the River to Pray" (also known as "Down to the River to Pray," "Down in the Valley to Pray," "The Good Old Way," and "Come, Let Us All Go Down") is a traditional American song variously described as a Christian folk hymn, an African-American spiritual, an Appalachian song, and a gospel song. The exact origin of the song is unknown. Research suggests that it was composed by an African-American slave.[1]

Lyrics and versions[edit]

Earliest known form of the song, from Slave Songs of the United States

The earliest known version of the song, titled "The Good Old Way," was published in Slave Songs of the United States in 1867.[1] The song (#104) was contributed to that book by George H. Allan of Nashville, Tennessee, who may also have been the transcriber. The lyrics printed in this collection are:

As I went down in de valley to pray,
Studying about dat good old way,
When you shall wear de starry crown,
Good Lord, show me de way.
O mourner, let's go down, let's go down, let's go down,
O mourner, let's go down,
Down in de valley to pray

Another version, titled "Come, Let Us All Go Down," was published in 1880 in The Story of the Jubilee Singers; With Their Songs, a book about the Fisk Jubilee Singers.[2]

Version of the song as sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers

This version also refers to a valley rather than a river; the first verse is:

As I went down in the valley to pray,
Studying about that good old way;
You shall wear the starry crown,
Good Lord, show me the way.
By-and-by we'll all go down, all go down, all go down,
By-and-by we'll all go down,
Down in the valley to pray.

In some versions, "in the river" is replaced by "to the river". The phrase "in the river" is significant, for two reasons. The more obvious reason is that the song has often been sung at outdoor baptisms (such as the full-immersion baptism depicted in the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?).[3] Another reason is that many slave songs contained coded messages for escaping. When the slaves escaped, they would walk in the river because the water would cover their scent from the bounty-hunters' dogs.[4] Similarly, the "starry crown" could refer to navigating their escape by the stars.[5] And "Good Lord, show me the way" could be a prayer for God's guidance to find the escape route, commonly known as "the Underground Railroad."

Mistaken attributions[edit]

Some sources mistakenly claim that the song was published in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835, several decades before the effort to gather and publish Negro spirituals gained momentum in the Reconstruction Era.[3] There is in fact a song called "The Good Old Way" in the Southern Harmony[6] (also found in the Sacred Harp); that song, however, has completely different melody and lyrics (which likewise should not be confused with a Manx hymn tune of the same name and text, made famous by the Watersons)[7] Its lyrics begin as follows:

Lift up your heads, Immanuel's friends
And taste the pleasure Jesus sends
Let nothing cause you to delay
But hasten on the good old way

Notable recordings[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Slave Songs of the United States at Internet Archive
  2. ^ "Come, Let Us All Go Down" Archived October 2, 2013, at the Wayback Machine in The Story of the Jubilee Singers; With Their Songs, NIU Libraries Digitization Projects
  3. ^ a b "Let's Go Down in the River to Pray", Martin Barillas, SperoNews, April 13, 2011
  4. ^ Smith, Jessie Carney (2010). Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture. ABC-CLIO. p. 466. ISBN 9780313357978.
  5. ^ "Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals". SpiritualsProject. Archived from the original on 3 April 2015. Retrieved 28 March 2015.
  6. ^ "The Good Old Way", Southern Harmony Online
  7. ^ "The Good Old Way / Sweet Hope of Glory", Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music
  8. ^ Okeh 40000 series numerical listing pt. 2 at the Online Discographical Project
  9. ^ "Down in the valley to pray" at Library of Congress

External links[edit]