The traditional Appalachian song “Down in the River to Pray” has been popularized since Indiana-born singer Alison Krauss sang it for the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which was released in 2000. This novelty belies is deep roots in American history and the spirituality of oppressed and poor Christian people.
The authorship of the hymn, still used at baptisms by Evangelical Christians, remains a mystery. The song may have been composed by slaves in the antebellum South long before the War of Secession and the Emancipation Proclamation. There is also reason to believe that it may have its origins in a Native American spiritual tradition and then adapted with Christian lyrics.
“Down to the River to Pray” enjoys the distinction of being one of the few African-American spirituals to be also regarded as an authentic American folk hymn. It was
published in the Southern Harmony Hymnal in the 1800s - years before the effort to collect and publish African-American spirituals gained momentum during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
It may have been written by George H. Allan in Nashville, Tennessee during slavery in the South, being published in a slave songbook in 1867? It appeared 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 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 Valley to Pray”, and alternately as “Down in the River to Pray”. However, as originally constructed by Allan or another, the song is often interpreted as an entreaty to sinners to go and ask for the grace of baptism and the limitless mercy of their Lord.
Here is how the lyrics appear in the Allan version:
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 do down, let's go down,
O mourner, let's go down, Down in de valley to pray.
What valley? If George Allan was a slave, or at least was a song collector in Nashville, one would suspect the valley is somewhere in Tennessee. 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 songs’ origins are the inland slave states of Tennessee, Arkansas, and the Mississippi River.
So, perhaps slaves from Arkansas or the Mississippi Valley could have been the original composers, instead. There’s 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? Is it an implied message about baptism? We are are all sinners, the song’s conclusion reminds us and was alluded to in the Coen Brothers' film. In any event, it is a deeply spiritual song from a time of darkness where faith still shone. That is a message that still needs to be shared today.
The following site is of the “Slave Songs of the U.S.”, edited by William Francis Allen, 1830-1889; Charles Pickard Ware, 1840-1921; and Lucy McKim Garrison 1842-1877; and published in 1867 by A. Simpson and Company: http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/allen/allen.html. The song is # 104, listed with the title “The Good Old Way” and attributed to a Mr. G.H. Allan in Nashville. The copyright of the book in its electronic form (online) is owned by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The following site indicates the song is the same at “Down in the Valley to Pray” (performed by Doc Watson), with the word ‘river’ substituted: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080427133006AATTsVN