The difference between ‘in’ and ‘to’

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.

“Down to the River to Pray” as sung by Alison Krauss in O Brother Where Art Thou?

This song, as sung by Alison Krauss, haunts me.  It’s a traditional hymn, and I’ve even seen thoughts that the tune might be Native American, from the Hupa Nation1. It’s one of those songs that, when it sticks in your head for days, you don’t mind. It’s beautiful.

But the word ‘in’ has bugged me for a long time. “Down in the river to pray.” I keep thinking, shouldn’t it be ‘to’? It doesn’t make logical sense, and even Alison Krauss titles it as “Down to the River to Pray.”

It’s an old southern hymn. Perhaps even an Underground Railroad song. I wonder, is the ‘in’ just a bit of illiteracy that crept in and stuck?

I tried singing it with ‘to’. It’s more logical, but it doesn’t sound as good or scan as well. It puts ‘to’ into the line twice, and it’s too many to’s. Despite the logic, it really sounds better as ‘in’.

So, I thought, needing to tidy this up in my mind, perhaps it’s a prayer offered up during the Christian rite of baptism — the total immersion kind where you go to the river and get dunked in the water and then pray.

There’s a certain logic to that. Baptism is a cleansing. A ritual that emerged from “one of those dusty countries,” to quote Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When you live in a dusty, dirty place, a dunking in the river undoubtedly takes on added significance, both spiritual and physical.

But, true to my agnostic leanings, I needed a better explanation to settle my word compulsion. And what I came up with is this: that the ‘river’ is the ‘stream of unconsciousness’ in the Jungian sense. From whence come our imaginations, mythologies, and symbols. The deep part of our being that we seldom perceive directly.

That river is one I can pray in. Yes. “Good Lord, show me the way.”

1 Musical Perceptions: Down to the River to Pray. See the comments.

2 thoughts on “The difference between ‘in’ and ‘to’

  1. This song is an adaptation of “Down to the Valley to Pray,” a song popularized in the 1960s folk revival by Doc Watson. I think Alison (or producer T-Bone Burnett or the Coen Brothers) changed Doc’s “Valley” to Alison’s “River” to match the baptism scene in O Brother.

  2. Mike, thanks as always. This is good to know. My Jungian interpretation still works with ‘valley’ but not quite as well 🙂

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