Down to the River to Pray by Tiffany Goodrick and Virtual Choir.
It’s a beautiful Sunday hereabouts, perfect for the old-timey folk gospel song Down to the River to Pray. The exact origins of the song are obscure but undoubtedly from enslaved people in the ante-bellum American South.
The earliest printed version of the song, titled The Good Old Way, was published in Slave Songs of the United States in 1867 contributed by George H. Allan of Nashville, Tennessee. Another version, 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.
Fugitive slaves following the North Star to freedom. Black spirituals like Down to the River to Pray and Follow the Drinking Gourd contained coded instructions.
Like many slave spirituals, this one has dual meanings—overtly Christian referencing baptism and salvation, and coded symbolism for the escape to freedom and the underground railroad. The River may be the Ohio which separated slave states from free. The starry crown may be the Big Dipper and North Star which showed the way for the fugitives.
The earliest recording by the Price Family Singers in Atlanta in 1927 on the Okeh label used the title I Went Down to the Garden. In 1940 Leadbelly recorded it for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress.
Down to the River has been associated with full emersion baptism.
Despite the Black origins by the early to mid-20th Century the song had diffused to the Appalachian South where it was sung in primitive Baptist and Pentecostal churches where White worshipers understood the lyrics literally and were sure that the River was the Biblical Jordan. Doc Watson recorded it for Vanguard in 1960. As a Country folk hymn it became known to wider audiences when Allison Krause recorded it for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack in 2000. Today it is more commonly associated with white country gospel than black.
But not matter which tradition, it was perfect for unaccompanied close harmony singing in impoverished congregations and was often used for full emersion baptism services. But it is also a favorite of my Tree of Life a capella choir.
This version has become a Cornavirus isolation and YouTube sensation. Organizer Tiffany Goodrick, a Christian music artist and song leader, described how her Virtual Choir worked: “The 36 voices you hear were all recorded separately at different times and in different locations. Each woman had only the melody playing in her ear and then sang the part that she wanted, no music was written out. All videos were recorded using cell phones.