Alison Krauss - “Down In The River To Pray”
From the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
For all the amazing instruments and instrumentalists out there - and there are many - when push comes to shove, I don’t think anything has quite the power and impact of a massed group of voices, flowing in, over, and around each other to form a melody. It’s one of the reasons why gospel music is so intertwined with the chuches and spirituality, and one of the reasons you’ve got such powerful, soulful singers like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding coming out of that arena. The human voice has this power to channel raw emotion, to stir up these primitive feelings and project them outward, to reach people on a level that moves beyond mere language. It’s the reason why, even though I’m not a religious guy, I love me some gospel.
Admittedly, I was not walking into the theater in 2000 to see the new Coen Brothers movie thinking I’d discover a great new sound, but there was one scene in particular that had this song that just hit me so powerfully - this was long before the days of Shazam, so I had to do a little searching afterward to learn that this was sung by Alison Krauss, whom I’d never really listened to before. I knew it was likely an old spiritual number, and sure enough, I’d later learn that Going To The River To Pray has roots going back to the early 1800s. I haven’t heard any other versions of this song yet, but I think it’s safe to assume there’s been quite a few recorded over the past 160+ years.
And I’m sure many of those are good listens, but it’d still be hard to beat this pristine, acapella version led by Krauss and a whole cadre of singers. I don’t know how many singers were in the studio with Krauss when she recorded this, but it’s a stark, simple reading of the religious-themed lyrics, starting with Krauss singing in isolation before being joined by more and more voices, until it swells to this warm, full chorus for the final run through. It’s not a complicated song or a particularly difficult melody, and it doesn’t have to be - instead, it’s just pure, warm, and wonderful. Have a listen.