So I was out walking the other evening, trotting along to a Mormon Tabernacle Choir recording of American hymns and spirituals. Trotting to hymns? Yes, because many of them have brisk tempos, to put it mildly. When your choir has excellent diction, you can do brisk. So along comes “Down to the River,” and I did a sort of double take, because I’d never connected their version with what I think of as the original. And both work.
What is the original? It was recorded, as in written down, as “The Good Old Way” shortly after the Civil War and is usually attributed to a former slave. When written later in a different collection, the text had been shifted from “Down to the River” to “Down in the River,” which is how I first heard it. “In the river connotes baptism, especially if you are from a rural tradition where baptisms do not start with ” Between November and April, first blow hole in ice on river.” And because that is the version used in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou.
It is slow, uses harmonies I associate with Sacred Harp, and builds slowly, adding layers of voices. But it never speeds up and remains quite spare, again, what I’d associate with vernacular church music in the American South. I sing it myself as a personal meditation, using this setting. It is a plea, asking people to come and asking the Lord to guide.
And then there’s this:
It’s a reel! You can dance to it. There’s no pleading, but rejoicing, dancing like David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, dancing down to the river to celebrate conversion and faith. Yes, it is a Mack Wilburg arrangement. He has several American hymns that he’s added reels and jigs to, and they always work. I like this version, but there’s nothing spare about it.
Same song, same basic idea, but two very different “senses” to it. I’ve heard and sung pieces like this before (there’s an arrangement of “Beautiful Savior” that takes it in a three-feel that makes Scandinavian hymn almost Asian sounding, and is absolutely magical) but never quite as dramatically.