Trad. (arr Richards) - Down by the Riverside


“Down by the Riverside” is an American spiritual with a long history, possibly even as far back as the time of the Civil War (1861-65). The song is very well known and has been performed in a great many versions – here is one by Mahalia Jackson recorded in 1957.

Pupil Match & Suitability

This arrangement will suit a student who can project a melodic line, keep a steady pulse with syncopations, and manage chords. A hand span of an octave is required (LH Bar 34). If the student is unable to reach the pedal there will be a loss of essential notes in the last two bars.

Style & Tempo

This is easy-going, good-humoured music, (with Bar 21 onward) the use of chords and a more sustained bass line intensifies the sound. There is a definite jazziness to the ending, when all sort of interesting chords appear (check out the thirteenth and eleventh chords in Bars 33-34!)

For tempo, minim at around 80 bpm is suggested. Anything more than 5 bpm either side of this runs into risks of either plodding or sounding rushed. Note also how this minim marking implies a two-in-a-bar feel rather than the four given in the time signature.

Phrasing & Articulation

The phrasing coincides very naturally with the lines of the song. No great skill in phrase shaping is necessary. However, care must be taken to avoid a dull, flat-footed effect in the LH.

Articulation is quite a complex mixture at times. Bars 1-4 may look straightforward but should the F-A-B flat be legato or detached? Slightly detaching them gives a more jaunty air – it is really a matter of personal preference. However, the crotchets followed by rests should not be staccato. RH articulation is marked in more detail and should be carefully observed.

Tone & Texture

There are two distinct phases to this arrangement, with a transition at bars 17-20: the first half sets a single line against an airy bass line interspersed with crotchet rests, which could easily be imagined played on a tuba. The second half keeps the simple chord-root bass movement but in a much more joined up style, with chords supplementing the RH melodic line. This builds into a full drawn-out finale with 4, 5 and 6-note chords, set off by a witty “twinkle” to finish.

For the older student with some listening experience of styles such as traditional jazz and big band sounds, it would be interesting to imagine in some detail a possible orchestration. The “call” phrases (Bars 5-6 etc) could be scored for a solo whilst the “response” could add several more instruments (clarinets or saxophones). The second half could experiment with different combinations of instruments to build up to the final bars with everybody blowing their hardest before the final fade!

Here's a full-blown Dixieland version to help with inspiration:


This piece will be greatly enhanced by good use of arm weight. It will warm up the bass line from the start and add emphasis without attack in the RH syncopations.

Different technical issues arise from Bar 25 onwards where chords change quite fast and the hands need to move and stretch more than before.

Accurate sixth-playing should be heard, with both notes sounding together, in Bars 21-24 and 29-31.

A strong RH 5th finger will be needed to pick out the melody above chords in Bars 34-35.


This is a piece where the 5th finger really has to do its fair share of the work. Students who try to avoid using it will regularly find themselves running out of fingers or adopting tense out-of-line hand shapes.

Bar 4 RH: the first note could be a 4 if that would get the line off to a stronger start

Bar 9 RH: the hand could stay in place and use a 3 on C or follow the previous bar's fingering and start with 4, or better (for articulation) 3 changing to 4.

Bar 18 RH: if the student wishes to put a 4 rather than 5 on the B flat they will need to slip-change it to a 5 during bar 9 to enable the lower line to be legato.

Bar 20-22 LH: thumb will eventually have to arrive on E flat (unless the student has long enough fingers to span a sixth between fingers 2 and 5 in bar 22). However, after the 3 on C sharp the thumb could go on D and 2 on E flat, so that the second finger does not have to slide in between the black keys.


A little pedal is marked, and is really necessary to ensure the music sounds right.

In Bars 33-34 it holds the chord while the hands reposition, and in Bars 37-38 it ensures that nothing is lost of the final chord when the RH plays the final gesture higher up.

Pedalling is unnecessary elsewhere.

Teaching Strategies

As this is a song, it will help greatly if the student sings it – not least so that they can try out different ways of varying the music when the same words are being repeated. No great vocal skill is needed – this was originally a song for singing at work and not in a concert hall.

Singing whilst clapping or stamping on beat 1 and beat 3 will also help with learning the syncopated rhythms and anticipated beats, which are much harder to explain in terms of counting half beats. This can be reinforced by playing as a duet, initially with the student playing the LH and teacher providing the melody. Later when a phrase or two or the RH have been learned, the teacher can provide the accompaniment. This leaves as a separate task the coordination of the two hands and ensures that the rhythmic patterns are well known and correct.

Some basic elements of harmony are on display here – the first few bars set up a bass line pattern within an unvarying tonic chord. Next, the student can be asked to find the place where the chord changes. For students who are writing triads in their theory exercises, it will be satisfying to find them in Bars18, 25 and 26.

Practice Tips

Spend plenty of time, early on, getting comfortable with the RH chords in Bars 33 and 34, and also the multi-layered RH in Bars 18-20. Moving from chord to chord in Bars 25-27 also takes accuracy. Always use consistent fingering – in a performance, if the player is still making fingering decisions as they go along, they are unable to make the music flow convincingly.

When first putting the hands together, the notes may have seemed very easy separately but give trouble with coordination. Take it very slowly, and work out exactly what is happening from beat to beat. In small chunks (maximum one bar) work through the movements needed and with each replaying it will seem less difficult. However, this cannot be rushed in the early stages.


Projecting the RH over the accompaniment may be a struggle for some students to maintain. Try getting them to place one hand on each knee and then press down – both the same, RH heavier than left, LH heavier than right, and assess what they had to do to get the right pressure. This can progress to pressing with fingertips, and then to “playing” the notes on their knees, all the time feeling whether one hand is too light or heavy.

The big chord in Bar 33 may become a habitual hesitation, especially coming at the beginning of a new line. Students can easily be caught out by the extra work caused by reading from one line to a new one. Prevention is best: encourage them to look ahead – if necessary by covering the last bar of the line as they play it.

The chord in Bar 33 looks more difficult on paper than it is in reality. Reassure the student that the LH thumb stays on B flat, and they can practice stretching the 5th down to the C. The RH is all on white notes. The next big chord in Bar 34 can be prepared well ahead of time as long as they have the pedal down!

Final Performance

An excellent performance will be jaunty and confident. There will be a sense of real enjoyment and familiarity, of expressing a personal version of an old song. The fact that it is such a well-known song will create a sense of recognition and pleasure in the audience which the performer will tap into, establishing an instant rapport. The drawn-out ending with its twinkling final gesture will be handled with flair.

A good performance will be secure in the notes and comfortable in the syncopations. There will be a sense of fluency and enjoyment. Dynamics and phrasing will be nicely marked (with suitable dynamic light and shade provided where there are no markings in the music). The LH will not be allowed to dominate.

A sound performance will generally find the notes and keep the beat. There will be enough technical control to enable the melody to be heard over the accompaniment, but there may be some heaviness in the LH at times. Dynamics may be rather minimal. Some of the more technically difficult places may cause a temporary sense of unease in the playing. The last bar may be cut short instead of being left to ring on for its full effect.

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