Song Analysis “Down in the River to Pray” – Alison Krauss

“Down to the River to Pray” –Alison Krauss
From the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way !

O sisters let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down,
O sisters let's go down,
Down in 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 !

O brothers let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down,
Come on brothers let's go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way !

O fathers let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down,
O fathers let's go down,
Down in 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 !

O mothers let's go down,
Come on down, don't you want to go down,
Come on mothers, let's go down,
Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way !

O sinners let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down,
O sinners let's go down,
Down in 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 !

[This song is clearly rooted in a Christian worldview. The verses about going down to the river are referring to baptism. In baptism, the worshipper is sprinkled with water which symbolically washes his or her sins. In fact, in an antiquated church in Greece, one can find the following palindrome on the baptismal fonts: “NIPSON ANOMIMATA MI MONAN OPSIN.” The palindrome means, “Wash my sins, not only my face.”

Islam has a similar rite to baptism – wudu. In wudu, a Muslim prepares for prayer by washing himself or herself including the hands, arms, head, and feet. The act of wudu is an act of physical and spiritual purification that not only washes the face but also washes off sins.

The “good old way” in this song is Christianity or perhaps, Christ himself. Christians believe Jesus, on him be peace, said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Incidentally, some Christians cringe when people say, “by the way,” and see it as a form of cursing because they believe Christ called himself “the way.”

The robe and the starry crown are garments of heaven. These are marks of nobility reserved for God’s elect. Traditional Islamic sources speak of the citizens of heaven wearing beautiful garments of silk. Also, on the Day of Judgment, believers will shine from the parts of the body that they washed in wudu. I do not know of any ayahs of the Quran or Hadith (Traditions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) speaking of believers wearing crowns in heaven, but Allah knows best.

The song addresses its audience in various ways – “brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers.” Speaking of believers as if they are one family is part of the common heritage of the monotheistic faiths. The Jews call themselves the “Children of Israel.” Christians and Muslims speak of each other as brothers and sisters.

The song also calls out, “O sinners.” This is something I have heard Christians say but not Muslims. When Christians say it, I think what they are testifying to is that we are all imperfect, and all in need of redemption. Islam similarly sees humanity as flawed and sinful, yet neither Allah nor His Messenger ever commanded us to refer to one another as “sinners.” Muslims should see themselves as slaves of God who sin from time to time, but not sinners who only obey God from time to time. It may seem to be a subtle difference, but it actually underlies a fundamental paradigmatic difference between the two faiths. Christians believe that it is only through the sacrifice of Christ that they can be saved. On the other hand, Muslims believe they can stand before God on their own two feet with no one to answer for their sins except themselves.]

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