The Ethics of Songs: Oct 13, 2021

Canadian composer Juliet Palmer talks about Down in the River to Pray and asks what if we treated rivers as though they could sing? Preseneted by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics for the series, The Ethics of Songs.


Drawn to water

I’m drawn to water: flowing, falling, rushing, rolling, rippling, thirst-quenching water. Buoyant water that holds me afloat as I swim, that carries me along in the river’s flow, that hurls me onto the edge of the beach and pulls me back into the surf. Hot water that rises up from the sand at low tide or bubbles up from the pebbles of a mountain river. Water to soak in, to float on, water that restores and revives, washes and soothes.

The river carries stories and songs, plants and animals, soil and sand from high in the hills, through valleys, to lakes and oceans. Rivers call us to sing, to send a song downstream to our neighbours, to sing a history down river to our grandchildren.

Down in the river to pray

For some reason the song that comes into my mind as I stand beside the river is the African-American spiritual “Down in the river to pray.” I’m not sure when I first heard it. Maybe it was in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou?, where the three run-away prisoners stand spellbound as they watch the baptism of one convert after another in the river, the faithful plunging beneath the water then rising up to the surface, serene and soaking, released from sin. The voices of the crowd roll and undulate, carrying us gently down to the river to pray.

Alison Krauss’s version was featured in the film and caught the public’s ear — it’s now hard to find recordings that don’t sound like knock-offs of that rendition. Written down, arranged and recorded, the song seems stuck. Like a river bounded by concrete, it no longer meanders and changes over time. But listen to Lead Belly’s 1966 release or the Delta Big Four’s 1930 recording, and you’ll hear the lively tributaries of the song, before it settled into the steady state of its current flow.

Who’s singing it and where

The song’s words and melody may vary, depending on who’s singing it and where. Down in the River to Pray sings to us of baptism by immersion, but also of the river as a means of escape from slavery. The river’s flow allowed people fleeing bondage to navigate unknown lands, to erase footprints and wash away past identities. Sifting through different recordings of the song, it seems like its Black past has almost been washed away, becoming a song sung mostly by white country singers and choirs. There’s even a cup song version.

Sometimes it’s down in the river, other times it’s down to the river. River shifts to valley and back again. I like the version that’s in the river, immersed in the flow. For me, being in the river, with the river, listening to the river is itself a form of prayer. Let’s go down in the river to pray. The river invites us into a state of flow, of reflection. Going down in the river to pray invites us into a state of gratitude, of awareness, awe and amazement. What you might call a prayerful state of mind. Prayer can simply be the act of listening. But prayer isn’t always silent — it can burst into song. In French nous chantons, which leads us into enchantment and incantation, both suggesting reverence in the presence of something beyond ourselves. Down in the River brings us into the water, and calls our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, to enter the flow with us. The flow of water sustains generation after generation. Humans cannot survive without water, so it’s not surprising that rivers are often experienced as manifestations and embodiments of the sacred: from Oshun, the Yoruba river orisha and Maori taniwha, fierce guardians of rivers; to Sinann, the goddess of the Irish river Shannon, and the sacred Indian Yamuna river goddess.

Opening our ears and hearts to other voices

Singing to the river, we summon ancestral spirits. Repeating words and melodies, joining our voices in harmony, we weave a braided river of song, shifting our perceptions and opening our ears and hearts to other voices.

Is it only humans who sing? We are comfortable with the idea of birds singing and whales too. Belugas, dolphins, orcas all do it. But what if the river could sing? What would we hear if we listened? The bubble and gurgle of a vibrant river cascading over rocks? Songs of belugas, calls of frogs, clicks of fish, ringing trills of dragonfly wings, hums of bees, and choruses of birds? Or would we hear mechanical thrums, sudden explosions, the rhythmic knocking of engines? The silence of a river encased in a concrete channel?

The idea of the river as living being has recently been acknowledged in law. In 2017 Aotearoa New Zealand passed The Te Awa Tupua Act, the first piece of legislation in the world to declare a river a legal person, creating a framework for shared stewardship of the Whanganui River. In 2021, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality declared the Muteshekau Shipu (Magpie River) a legal person. Other Indigenous communities are using the law to uphold the sacredness of rivers — the Atrato River in Columbia, as well as the Klamath River in Oregon under the governance of the Yurok Tribal Council. Dams are being removed from the Klamath, letting the river flow freely once again. This is part of a global movement, enshrining the rights of nature in law — acknowledging rivers, mountains and forests as living beings.

The land is a body and the rivers are its lifeblood

Kanienkehaka lawyer and scholar Dr. Beverly Jacobs makes the point: “If you see the faces of the children in your land, it’s alive.” Indigenous teachings are grounded in this understanding of the land as alive — we are surrounded by more-than-human beings. The land is a body and the rivers are its life blood: wherever you are, if you live close to the water, your future is bound up with the river’s. Just before a dam was opened on the Danube River, a Hungarian fisherman expressed his grief, saying “our throat will be cut.” Dams strangle the life of the river — forests may suffer from drought, wetlands dry out, fisheries collapse, and the natural filtering of the water through vegetation and wetlands is disrupted, increasing sediment load and pollution. The Iron Gates, the Serbian-Romanian dam on the Danube extirpated the sturgeon from the river. Listen to sound artist Annea Lockwood’s A Sound Map of the Danube, documenting the Danube River from its source to its mouth: Lockwood’s work makes space for intimate listening and connection with the insects, fish, people and other creatures whose lives are intertwined with the river.

A river has a mouth

A river has a mouth, and geographers talk about the river’s throat. What is the river’s song? Listening, we pay attention to the cry of the water and of the land. Letting a river run wild, opening its throat, can be the first step to restoring the watershed, reducing flooding and bringing it back to health.

The apocalyptic flood that ends the film O Brother where art thou? was based on The Tennessee Valley Authority’s dam-building of the 1940s — a massive reshaping of the land which destroyed the homes of 15,000 families and transformed the lives of its inhabitants.

Why do I keep returning to this song? Let’s go down in the river to pray. It reminds me of the sacredness and aliveness of the river — a call to open our ears to new songs.


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