In Freedom and Baptism: "Down in the River to Pray”
A time for prayer is never wasted time. In "Down in the River to Pray," any time is preferable to talk to the Almighty.
This hymn has various names. These include "Down to the River to Pray," "Down in the Valley to Pray," "The Good Old Way," and "Come, Let Us All Go Down." The hymn wears many hats: it is an American song, a Christian folk hymn, an Appalachian song, a gospel song, and an African-American spiritual. There is no credited composer nor writer of this hymn. It is believed this song was written by an African-American slave.
One of the oldest titles of the song was "The Good Old Way." This version was published in Slave Songs of the United States in 1867. In the book, the song was numbered #104 was submitted by George H. Allan of Nashville, Tennessee. Another version was published in 1880 in The Story of the Jubilee Singers; With Their Songs. In this version, the title of the song was "Come, Let Us All Go Down."
The presence of the river in the hymn is significant. In the Christian world, the river or a body of water represents baptism. This is also important in how the river is presented. The lyrics "in the river" depicts the ceremony of baptism and the reason this song accompanies the celebration. This may also refer to the slave aspect of the hymn. The phrase denotes the slaves' use of the river to erase their scent from dogs.
One of the most covered songs since 1927, it was first covered by Price Family Sacred Singers. Recently, Michael W. Smith and the University of Texas Tuba/Euphonium Studio sang it in 2016. Most of the covers are hymn-related and albums.
The hymn has seven stanzas, and the title serves as the first line in every verse. There is also one refrain. In every instance of the refrain, a different demographic is called upon. In the beginning, it was the sisters. This was followed by brothers, fathers, mothers, and finally, sinners. This paints to the broad spectrum of believers and audiences.