This song was first collected in 1867 in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States. Although the lyrics were apparently from slave sources, the title was written and published in 1835 by the famed composer William Walker.
“Singin Billy” as he was known, was the compiler of man hymns books, including Southern Harmony. By the time of his death in 1875, Walker had sold more than 750,000 books.
This song is often referred to by its first line, “As I Went Down in the Valley to Pray,” it gained fame in the 2000 Coen brothers’ film, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” where the lyrics were changed to “As I went down to the river to pray.”