‘By the Rivers of Babylon': Song, Hope & Reality

Yesterday’s post on Fordham professor Steven Stoll’s essay, ‘Agrarian Anxieties’, got me thinking about another Bible story of conquest and enslavement: the Babylonian captivity.

In the 6th century BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judea and dispatched a large portion of the population to Babylon as slaves. This period produced some inspiring tales – Daniel in the lions’ den and the exiles return and rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem – and much-beloved psalms.

Psalms were hymns, folk songs probably, not elements of Hebrew ritual as they are of Christian services today. So, it is hardly surprising that references crop up in all sorts of gospel songs – from Sam Cooke to Hank Williams and thousands of others known only as ‘Trad.’

Of all these, my favorite – and in my all time ‘top 10′ – is ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ written and recorded in 1969 by the Melodians. Its opening verses paraphrase Psalm 137.

I first heard it on the soundtrack to ‘The Harder They Come’ (1972), the great Jimmy Cliff film which made Americans aware of Reggae, Rastifarianism and life as it was/is lived in the Jamaican slums.

Since 1972, I’ve listened to it, sung along with it, sometimes ten times in a row. I still wonder at it, both the words and the performance. Listen to the Melodians’ version here.

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So what’s the connection to Steven Stoll’s piece?

Stoll makes a point of the connection between agrarian imperialism, slavery and rivers. ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ evokes this connection almost uniquely.

It’s hard to beat King James’s translators at phrase making, and the first verse is memorable:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. (Psalm 137, v. 1).

But improve it the Melodians did.

By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion

Stylistically, King James’s crew’s verses 3 and 4 are no better:

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137, v. 3-4)

In contrast, the Melodians continue:

But the wicked carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alfa song
In a strange land
Cause the wicked carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alfa song
In a strange land

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Now there’s a lot to say about this verse. Some of the links supply fascinating detail. I just want to focus on the astonishing descent of the language.

Think of these images coming from a 2600 year old Hebrew folk song translated into this English at the time of Shakespeare’s last plays.

From there, they passed into the culture and English dialect developed by African slaves imported to the island of Jamaica starting not long after the King James version of the Bible appeared. The symbolism of the strange waters and strange land could not be more harsh.

The Melodians emphasize these images with an intense, post-colonial message in verse three:

Sing it out loud
Sing a song of freedom sister
Sing a song of freedom brother
We gotta sing and shout it
We gotta talk and shout it
Shout the song of freedom now

It is hard to find a better lyric of the American Civil Rights era and the days when the British Union Jack and French Tri-color came down across the tropics.

But, it is the next verse that seals the greatness of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.

So let the words of our mouth
And the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight
Over I
So let the words of our mouth
And the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight
Over I

This verse paraphrases Psalm 19, v. 14, which is used as a refrain in Anglican (Church of England and Episcopal Church) Book of Common Prayer also dating to the 17th century. Priests often use the verse to introduce a homily.

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

From the despair of the captive to the exhortation of the freedom fighter to the humility of worshipers before their god….

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About 15 years ago, something changed my perception of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.

With my sons, I visited the Imperial War Museum in London. We had been to the museum before. I wanted to see its newly installed Holocaust section. For someone who studies modern corporations and their management, the exhibit was stunning. On another day, I will write about its implications for me.

In the largest of the galleries, one devoted to Birkenau, on three gray walls hung pictures of the Hungarian transports who reached Auschwitz on a late May day in 1944. A picture of one group awaiting sorting between slavery and death I now think of when I hear the opening lines of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.

I think especially of a woman about my grandmother’s age standing in the foreground, with women and children about her. There are no rivers, no water, no hope. I wonder if the words of Psalm 137 ran through her mind.

Lebensraum , the Nazi imperial justification for eastward expansion, seems to be only a recent variation, if Steven Stoll is right, of a 12,000 year old theme.

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H/T: Brother Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Mass., whose Sept. 19 sermon and the liturgy it graced prompted many of these thoughts.

Query: Why did the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (1928) introduce such a clunky transliteration of the King James version of Psalm 137? ‘By the waters of Babylon….’ In addition to being ugly, it doesn’t capture Babylon’s singular advantage: the flood planes of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

One Comment

  1. Jotham Kinder said:

    Because the ‘rivers’ might not have actually been rivers but irrigation canals or tributaries, as opposed to the Euphrates. Waters of Babylon could be read to mean Babylon the city, not the nation. Personally, I think rivers sounds better, but I do understand the argument.

    October 5, 2010
    Reply

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