Thursday, July 08, 2004

Down to the River to Pray

I surprised my wife by announcing that I really liked this song from the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. This was in response to her professed admiration for Alison Krauss' song. She was surprised because of the conflict between the religious text and my agnostic beliefs, since the lyrics were a large part of what she liked.

My admiration stems from several intriguing characteristics of the music itself. First is the asymmetric phrase structure. There is an ametric pause after each refrain, and each stanza includes one 5/4 measure among the regular 4/4 beats. This causes the conscious to listen closely, without necessarily knowing why it needs to pay attention. Some might regard the asymmetry as a type of primitivism, but I don't hear it that way. The 5/4 measure adds a level of sophistication, and the pause keeps you guessing as to when the next stanza begins, another attention-getter. The 5/4 measure also throws the poetry into confusion (see the lyrics at the bottom of the post). "And who shall wherewear" is added to the previous line with the extra beat, so the rest of that line is combined with the final line of the verse.

The second interesting characteristic is the lack of closure to the primary melodic line. Each stanza, including the last, finishes with Do - La - Sol. The Do does not sound final, coming on a weak beat and leading to the final Sol. It could be a modal finish, but the harmonies don't support that interpretation. This does create some sense of primitivism, at least to my Schenker-biased ears, though it also seems to fit the lyrics well. The river keeps rolling along without ending, just as the tonality of this song does.

The harmonies, beautifully realized by human voices alone, also deny closure and create a sense of both sophistication and "old-time" aesthetics. There are many 6/4 chords (triads with the fifth in the bass) in structurally important places, destabilizing the harmonic progression and therefore the sense of tonality. The bass line tends to follow the melody in similar motion, rather than create any sense of root motion from chord to chord. The avoidance of roots even as more and more harmonic strands are added is both frustrating and intriguing. In the end of the last stanza, all voices move to unison/octaves mostly (some embellishments), so all the voices end on Sol.

As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord show me the way
Oh sisters let's go down
Let's go down come on down
Oh sisters let's go down
Down to the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord show me the way
Oh brothers let's go down
etcetera

As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord show me the way
Oh fathers let's go down
etcetera

As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord show me the way
Oh mothers let's go down
etcetera

As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord show me the way
Oh sinners let's go down
etcetera

As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord show me the way

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis. Please correct spelling of "wear" in original quote: "And who shall where. . ."

Anonymous said...

I have reason to belive the tune was taken from a Native American prayer song-- Hupa to be precise... I heard it (with different words) in an exhibit on Hupa religion in the National Museum of the American Indian in DC. I've got no proof of this however-- I actually found this post looking for it. Thought you might find that interesting though...

Anonymous said...

My friend told me this song has a double meaning relating to the Underground Railroad. Whoever was going to be next to be freed via the Underground Railroad was who should wear the robe and crown. Could anyone verify this? Thanks, Betty

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'd like to second the comment that the song seems to be from the Hupa nation of Native Americans. Also visited the Museum of the American Indian in DC, and was shocked to hear it was originally a Hupa song, stolen and modified with Christian lyrics! We took their land, why not their music as well?

Anonymous said...

Whatever its origin, the English lyrics of this tune say "As I went down in the river..." notably not TO the river. Judeochristian thought takes goin down IN the river quite seriously, first with Moses going into the Red Sea, and then John the Baptist by the Jordan River, re-enactig the exodus with his baptism. Going down in the river calls the people to surrender entirely to the Lord. In makes sense that this conversation should end anticlimacticly musically and poetically, since the Lord has the last word.

just another duck on the pond said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Ran across this blog in looking for the origin of this song. My middle school choir is performing it as part of a benefit concert for Haiti. Whatever the interesting chord structure, melodic contour, origin, or rhythm it is simply one of the most captivating songs ever created. Imagine 120 seventh and eighth graders standing perfectly still meditating and reflecting on how they personally relate to this song and then singing it with great passion and reverence. I get goose bumps every time they sing it.

just another duck on the pond said...

[i had to edit my blather :] i very much appreciate your analysis--and agree especially on the good effect of the unevenness of the phrase endings. and it does sound like native american phrasing.

i use the 'down IN the river to pray' because it seems more right somehow...especially for a meditation/taize more to do with going into the interior spiritual river... i hope others will wander by with news on where to find the origin of the melody in particular and to know where/when the words were applied to it...thanks.

Anonymous said...

I found this website online after having heard the song in the Hupa language at the National Museum of the American Indian, and recognized the tune of "Down in the River" -- which I see some other people posting about it have done here. Unlike those who respond by condemning "Down in the River," I'm curious about just where and how one version of the song got adapted for another one, 2000+ miles across the continent! Folk music and folk arts, crafts, maybe everything that goes back to oral traditions got passed along (sometimes stolen!) and evolved and changed (and often got enriched!) that way. I am fascinated by your article that speaks on the distinct musical form of this melody...perhaps explainable by it having come not from typical gospel sources but from the Hupa. --Chris in Hburg

dmetz said...

The song appears in the book Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. The song appears to have been given to the editors by a George H. Allan. Index, after the name fo the song, his name is listed. As a result some have attibuted the song to him.

If you look at page XXXVII of the intro to the book where Mr. Allan and others are thanked, I think that it is pretty clear that the song was provided to the editors, along with other songs, by George H. Allan - and not that he wrote it. That his name appears after the song title in the index just indicates who provided the song to the editors. Also, by reading the intro I think the intention was to include songs song by slaves and songs clearly having orignated elsewhare and adopted by slaves were excluded. See pages VI, XVIII. Songes which seemed to have come from elsewhere but with no clear proof were left in.

Most likely there was a lot of cross polination and adaption by different communities.

Apparenlty, at times the song appears withthe word "valley" instead of "river".

Anonymous said...

thank to every one of your comments
i'l search and maybe find
the origin of this strange beauty

I expect to find Ireland as origin

I thank each one
(sorry, i'm only french)

Anonymous said...

The sentence that begins "As I went down in the river to pray" is never completed. I love this song too, but I don't think that's a sophisticated attempt to subvert expectations, I think it happened because, as someone else noted, this song has been passed down orally and changed here and there by a lot of different people (most of whom were probably illiterate -- slaves and rural Appalachians), like a game of Telephone, until the lyrics hardly make any sense. I suspect that's how the rhythm got changed, too. You can call it sophisticated if you want, but it makes you sound like a yuppie who's overawed by everything poor people do. It is a nice song though.