URI Kids: Song - Down By the Riverside

Songs and Music Activities: Down By the Riverside


To use music and lyrics to promote discussion about religion and spirituality; develop a sense of the importance of religion, religious beliefs and spirituality to people in various historical time periods and cultures


  • A recording of Down by the Riverside (Study War No More) or the ability to play the music and lead kids in singing the African-American spiritual
  • Resource for a recording of Study War No More is Peter, Paul and Mary's Around the Campfire album, 1998. 
  • Resource for the music and lyrics: One World, Many Voices: An Interfaith Songbook, published in 2002 by Interfaith Center at the Presidio, P.O. Box 29055, San Francisco, CA, 94129.
  • Lyrics printed out for each student to read.
  • Something to play recording on or a piano or guitar
  • A short background reading or talk on African-American spirituals to provide the context for the song.
  • A short background talk on the use of this song during the Civil Rights Movement. 
  • Biblical passages marked in a Bible about Crossing the Jordan River to get to the promised land, Deuteronomy 11:8-12, 18-21, Biblical passage marked in a Bible about baptism, Mark 1: 1-11. In addition, have the biblical passage, Isaiah 2:1-4 ready to read aloud. This is the Biblical reference for Ain't Gonna Study War No More.

It is more effective to actually read aloud from a Bible than to have the passages Xeroxed or written out. If you want students to read the passages themselves having kids actually use sacred texts and learning how they are arranged is an important component so try to have Bibles available. You will probably want to use a version with contemporary language.


First, have students listen to the lyrics and music either on a recording or have students sing the spiritual or both without providing any background. Discuss the students' first personal reactions to the spiritual. Have them speculate about its meaning historically.

Then provide historical/cultural background for the song and provide the Biblical references above. Have kids discuss the metaphor of crossing the river to a better place; of going from bondage to freedom; from oppression to liberation in each context: pre-Civil War slavery in U.S., racist practices in the US post Civil War through the Civil Rights movement, and the freedom of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt. The passage from Mark refers to baptism as the metaphoric crossing into the promising land. The promised land becomes a better life, a new life, overcoming death or loss, etc. Have students discuss what the "promised land" would be in each situation. You might also want to point out that in Jesus's time, which Mark refers to, the Jewish people were once again oppressed, this time by the Romans. Read the Isaiah passage at some point during this discussion

End the discussion of the song with a discussion about what situations in the world today are ones students' could imagine would be improved if people were inspired to "lay down their sword and shields down by the riverside?" This may lead to a discussion of non-violent practices. What does "I ain't gonna study war no more," mean to the students? What do students think of non-violent practices?

Alternative end to the discussion might be to ask the students what their personal burdens are that they wish they could lay down by the riverside. On a personal level, what would it mean if they did this? What is the personal equivalent to "I ain't gonna study war no more?" This approach to the discussion uses the song metaphorically on a personal level. A burden might be: grudges a student holds and can't let go of that are leading to unkind behaviors. Letting go of the grudges may lead to inner peace and peace for others who are a part of the student's life. This ending is especially compatible with the metaphor of baptism as starting a new life, entering the "promised land" personally.

Down by the Riverside :

I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside

I ain't gonna study war no more
Study war no more
Ain't gonna study war no more

Other lines that can appear in stanzas, in place of "gonna lay down my sword and shield" include:

  • Gonna lay down my sword and shield
  • Gonna stick my sword in the golden sand
  • Gonna try on my long white robe
  • Gonna try on my starry crown
  • Gonna put on my golden shoes
  • Gonna talk with the Prince of Peace
  • Gonna shake hands around the world
  • Gonna cross the river Jordan
  • Gonna climb upon that mountain
  • Gonna climb the road to heaven

Follow-up Activity: 

Have students write more verses to Down by the Riverside in a contemporary context.


Re-read the Isaiah passage one more time. Ask students to reflect on the lesson in general and in particular the passage from Isaiah. This is best done in writing first in learning logs or journals. You might want to ask students to volunteer to share their thoughts.