search 2013 adfgs

Radio Hymns #4: By the Rivers of Babylon

boney_m_-_rivers_of_babylon_1978_single In our now time-honoured Sunday tradition, we turn to music. This week in my new series Hymns from the Radio Dial, we get political with a call for social justice from Psalm 137. It is most likely that we all remember Rivers of Babylon as a late-70s song by German disco group Boney M. In fact, the song was written and recorded in 1972 by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians (1965-73), a Jamaican group in Kingston, the birthplace of reggae.

“Rivers of Babylon” was recorded for reggae record producer Leslie Kong (Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley) and became an anthem of the Rastafarian movement which, among other religious convictions, rejects western society as entirely corrupt, referring to it as “Babylon”, which is considered to have been in rebellion against “Earth’s Rightful Ruler” since the days of the King Nimrod. Rastas avow that “Zion” (to them Africa, especially Ethiopia) is a land promised to them.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

Boney M. picked up the song and recorded it in 1978. Any doubt over the fact that they intended the song’s Rastafarian overtones might be allayed by the fact that they performed an early mix of the song in a German TV-show singing “How can we sing King Alpha’s song” (changed for released versions to “the Lord’s song” per the biblical quote). King Alpha is a reference to Haile Selassie, revered as the religious symbol for God incarnate among the Rastafari movement.

The lyrics are of course lifted from Psalm 137, which expresses the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Chebar river. On this repurposing of the psalm, Nathaniel Samuel Murrell writes,

In their creative use of Psalm 137, Rastas penetrate what they see as the veil of divine silence on the “rape of Africa” during centuries of slavery, Muslim and Christian colonialism, and downpression (oppression) of the sons and daughters of Africa. Rastas break the silence by “hijacking” the song (not at gunpoint but at the hermeneutical point, i.e., in their own way of adopting and interpreting scripture) that the Hebrews created by the rivers of Babylon, and using it as a revolutionary call for justice, liberation, and protest against Babylonian oppression. In this way, Psalm 137, as a Rasta lamentation, instills hope and faith in a seemingly hopeless cause, the economic, social, and political liberation of a people. Tuned to the reggae beat and intoned on the guitar, the repeater, and the bass, the singing of this psalm in the Rastafari Nyabinghi or ritual cultic celebration is one of the most authentic and passionate expressions of the Rastafarian spirit, a spirit of strong dissonance and rejection of t he Babylon culture. In the Rastas’ Nyabinghi, which may parallel a lively Christian worship service, speeches are made against the Babylon system (“shitstem”), the heroes of the movement and courageous Rasta Brethren are celebrated, and words of “thanks and praise” are offered to Jah Rastafari, the deity.

The question is whether one can divorce the Rastafarian background to the song and retain the biblical background to sing the song as a similar call for justice and liberation of the oppressed. In a spiritual sense, it can of course be sung as a longing for the land of promise during a sojourn through a “foreign” or enemy-occupied territory. I would suggest that the meaning can lie in that with which you infuse it as you sing. In fact in a closer return to its original meaning, NFTY, the youth group of the Union for Reform Judaism, uses this song in its songbook, and sometimes in youth group services.

By the Rivers of Babylon

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion.

When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
Now how shall we sing the lords song in a strange land

When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Requiring of us a song
Now how shall we sing the lords song in a strange land

Let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart
Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts
Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion.

By the rivers of Babylon (dark tears of Babylon)
There we sat down (you got to sing a song)
Ye-eah we wept, (sing a song of love)
When we remember Zion. (yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah)

By the rivers of Babylon (rough bits of Babylon)
There we sat down (you hear the people cry)
Ye-eah we wept, (they need their God)
When we remember Zion. (ooh, have the power)

3 Responses to “Radio Hymns #4: By the Rivers of Babylon”

  1. Alex Says:

    Bro Maynard,
    Thank you for this series. Since I came to Christ late in life, I missed, and misunderstood the early Christian songs of the 70’s. This is filling a void in my understanding of the various streams of musical cries to God from people of faith of all backgrounds. Keep up the series until you reach the present.

    Alex

  2. Jon Bartlett Says:

    And the Melodians’ original version (can be found on Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” soundtrack album) is just SO much better than Boney M….

  3. brambonius Says:

    there is also 2 versions of the song by sinead o connor on her double album ‘theology’. Totally different atmosphere…

    the same psalm has also been used by soul-junk in their song ‘may my tongue be stuck up on the roof’. without any rasta influence…

    shalom

    Bram

Additional comments powered by BackType