Down to the River

Back in the olden days when I did a lot of pastoral counseling, I used to encourage journaling as a way of getting stuff swirling in someone’s head un-stuck. Studies showed that the practice of writing something down helped to discharge it from the person’s mind. Once it was on paper, it freed up the mind for other creative endeavors and helped the individual gain a perspective on whatever it was that was so preoccupying.

Usually when we have a song that’s stuck in our heads, it eventually goes away. For me, sometimes the words to those songs may have some bit of wisdom that my unconscious is using to get a message to me. I know that sounds a bit woo-woo, but out unconscious is powerful. Far be it from me to argue with her (smile).

So today’s song, Down to the River to Pray, was brought to the masses in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. However, it really is an old 19th-century spiritual.

I don’t know why, but I always thought it was an old religious song out of some place like Appalachia. Maybe because it conjures up images of small, rural country churches going down to the river for baptisms. Its simple verse, gospel feel evoked a heart-felt, simple faith.

It wasn’t until I took a musicology class at UCLA that I learned it was an old slave song, first published in a songbook of slave songs in 1867! It’s original name was The Good Old Way and they went down to de valley in the original song. The spiritual came from the slaves that worked the fields in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi River. Obviously the composer thought of family as mother, father, brothers, and sisters, and all of us as sinners (people who miss the mark). What’s even more fascinating is that this song from slaves still resonates with us almost 150 years later!

In case, you’re not familiar with the words here they are. Be careful; once you listen to the song, it may get stuck in your head!

Down to the River to Pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O sisters let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
O sisters let’s go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O brothers let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
Come on brothers let’s go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O fathers let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
O fathers let’s go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O mothers let’s go down,
Let’s go down, don’t you want to go down,
Come on mothers let’s go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O sinners let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
O sinners let’s go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

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