November 9

“Down by the Riverside:” A Song of Intense Biblical Imagery

A famous Negro spiritual that has been around even before the American Civil War (1861-65) is “Down by the Riverside.” Despite the song’s early existence, it was only in 1918 when the song was first published. It appeared on the Plantation Melodies: A Collection of Modern, Popular and Old-time Negro-Songs of the Southland, Chicago. The publishing company Rodeheaver Company was responsible for the song’s publication.

The Biblical Images Portrayed in “Down by the Riverside”

The famous spiritual came in several alternative titles including, among others, “ Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” “Gonna Lay Down My Burden,” “Going to Pull My War-Clothes,” and “Down by de Ribberside.” It’s one of the greatest gospel songs that lent itself to jazz interpretations. The song’s lengthy lyrics were peppered with intense Biblical imagery. Hence, it does not only offer a tune to sing. Also, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the words of God through these images.

The song has the following chief images: Getting rid of negativity and violence and wearing a spiritual gear at the side of the river before crossing it. Such depiction represents varying connotations. First, it could refer to baptism. In the tradition of the Southern Baptist, this encompasses the wearing of a white robe and being submerged in a body of water. The image also referred to one’s ascension to heaven after death. The symbolic use of the Jordan River underpins the image’s interpretation. In the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, this refers to the Hebrews’ final passage before entering the Promised Land after spending many years of wandering in the desert.

Just like many Negro spirituals, “Down by the Riverside” may as well provide a hidden reference to escaping slavery. The Ohio River presents the image of the river which serves as a border between states. Such states both allowed and prohibited slavery prior to the American Civil War. Moreover, a line from the refrain “ain’t gonna study war no more”referred to an Old Testament quotation. Appearing in the books of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 is the quote,

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Additional Facts of the Song

Given the song’s peaceable vibe, many used it during the Vietnam War as an anti-war protest song. Additionally, the song became a favorite among slaves in the South singing it as a work song.

Meanwhile, the very first known recording of “Down by the Riverside” was that of the Fisk University jubilee quartet. They recorded the song in 1920. Hundreds of leading musicians then recorded “Down by the Riverside” while others would regularly perform it in concerts. Among those artists who covered the song were Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley.

Watch the Nashville Jam’s live rendition of “Down by the Riverside” below.


Biblical Imagery, Down by The Riverside, Negro Spiritual Song, Work Song by the Slaves

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