One of Alison Krauss’s songs that stands out the most is her rendition of “Down to the River to Pray.” Krauss sang the traditional hymn for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2000, and it became an instant sensation – thanks to the huge success of the film’s soundtrack.

The soundtrack featured versions of old-time American songs recorded by Krauss and other artists like Gillian Welch, Norman Blake, and Emmylou Harris. The tracks were recorded in a relevant style to the film’s setting in the 1930s Southern United States. The soundtrack album was a chart smash, topping three charts in the U.S., including the Billboard Top 200. 

In addition to that, it sold over seven million records in 2001, defying predictions that non-contemporary music was non-commercial. A year later, the soundtrack album won big at the Grammy Awards, bringing home Album of the Year.

The Unknown Origins of “Down to the River to Pray”

It’s quite hard to pinpoint the exact origins of the song, “Down to the River to Pray” – still, it has been referred to as a hymn, a spiritual, and an Appalachian song. 

Some would say it was a Native American Tribal song that was adapted to include Christian lyrics. The song can be found in the Slave Songbook of 1867, the earliest known version ever published, and it was attributed to George H. Allan. 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. 

Whatever its origin might truly be, the deeply spiritual song is about keeping the faith in a time of darkness.

“As I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good ol’ 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,” the song begins.

Because of the song’s popularity, it is frequently covered by everyday people. The song also is known by alternate titles such as “Come, Let Us All Go Down,” “Down in the Valley to Pray,” and “The Good Old Way.” 

And we can help but be happy that Alison Krauss sang “Down to the River to Pray” – her rendition is nothing but breathtaking. She has the type of voice that will instantly soothe you as you listen, putting you at ease. 

Alison Krauss also performed “Down to the River to Pray” at the Austin City Limits festival, and the performance was included on her 2002 album Live. It was the only track included on the album from that performance. You can watch her rendition of the song in the video below.