Alison Krauss’ Down To The River To Pray is a rendition of a traditional American song more commonly described as a Christian folk hymn. It was a very soothing cover featured in the award-winning soundtrack album of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou, released in 2000 alongside other old-time American songs.
The Alternate Versions
There are many alternate titles of this song namely; “Down in the River to Pray,” “The Good Old Way,” “Come, Let Us All Go Down,” and “Down in the Valley to Pray.”
The earliest known version is entitled “The Good Old Way,” which is a mid-19th century Negro Spiritual published in the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States. It was contributed by George H. Allan of Nashville, Tennessee, who is also thought of as the song’s transcriber.
On the other hand, “Come, Let Us All Go Down” was published in 1880 in a book about Fisk Jubilee Singers titled The Story of the Jubilee Singers; With Their Songs.
It is also noticeable that an alternate title used “in the river” instead of “to the river.” There is a significant reason in this phrasing as this may be a song which contained coded messages which would be used for escaping. When enslaved people escape, they used to walk in the river to cover their scent from the bounty-hunters’ dogs. Certain references in the song such as ‘starry crown’ and ‘Good Lord, show me the way,’ can be attributed to their prayer to find and navigate an escape route.
Among all of these versions, Alison’s was the most popular. The film O Brother, Where Art Thou is a crime comedy-drama set in the 1930s Southern United States. In the film, “Down To The River To Pray” was sung as people waded into a river for baptism (being dunked into the water) performed by a preacher.
Alison Krauss performed the song at the Austin City Limits festival. And this specific performance was also included on her 2002 album Live, the only track from the performance featured on the album. She also sang this acapella with the First Baptist Church of White House, Tennessee. You can watch the 2002 Live Performance of Alison Krauss’ Down To The River To Pray in the video below.