River of Babylon

DESCRIPTION: The singer, in captivity, recalls the loss of Zion and the wickedness of the captors who now ask to be entertained by holy songs; how can we sing them "in a strange land." The singer asks that God find his words and [unstated] thoughts acceptable.
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1973 (Lewin-Forty Songs)
KEYWORDS: captivity grief request rejection exile home harp music ordeal Bible nonballad religious
FOUND IN: West Indies(Jamaica)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Lewin-Forty Songs, pp. 85-86, "River of Babylon" (1 text, 1 tune)
Melodians, Rivers of Babylon (1993, "The Story of Jamaican Music: Reggae Hit the Town (1968-1974)" Mango Records 162-539 935-2 518 399-2 CD2 518 401-2 CD)
NOTES [484 words]: Lewin p. 85: "['Rivers of Babylon' is a] Biblical reference by members of the Rastafarian cult who consider themselves Black Israelites." Lewin p. 19: "... all Rastafarians consider Ethiopia their homeland."
"River of Babylon" combines Psalm 19 and Psalm 137. The text I use for quotes in this note is JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999) because I find it clearer than King James, especially in the parts hidden from clear view in the song.
Psalm 19 begins, "The heavens declare the glory of God" and goes on to extoll the teaching, decrees, precepts, instruction, fear and judgments of the Lord; "Your servant pays them heed; in obeying them is much reward. Who can be aware of errors? Clear me of unperceived guilt." And then, as in the words of Melodians recording, "let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart be acceptable in Thy sight." In Psalm 19 this ending refers back to the words already spoken and the thought intended by those words.
Melodian's words follow the sense of the beginning of Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and ... wept when we remember Zion. But the wicked carried us away captivity require from us a song. How can we sing [Rasta] song in a strange land." The rest of Psalm 137 is not in the words of Melodians' or Lewin's texts. The text not sung begins with a refusal to sing holy songs for "our tormentors, for amusement"; harps are put away and before the singer would play or sing for their amusement his hand should wither, his tongue should stick to his palate, but -- in spite of not singing for them about Jerusalem -- he would "keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour." As for those "wicked: "Remember O Lord ... Jerusalem's fall; how they cried 'Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!' Fair Babylon, you predator, a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us; a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!"
Melodians, but not Lewin, follow "how can we sing..." by "let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart be acceptable...." But the singers know very well all of Psalm 137 that they have edited down. Instead of stating the rest of the psalm I believe they intend to imply it in the excerpt of Psalm 19 which asks for acceptance not only of the words they have sung, but of those they have thought but not sung. The song sounds innocent to those who don't know the references. - BS
Ben's notes make it clear that this is not the same as the "Waters of Babylon" song that I heard many, many years ago, "By the waters, the waters of Babylon, We lay down and wept, and wept, for thee Zion. We remember thee, remember thee, remember thee, Zion."
For those in the Orthodox tradition, the psalm cited is numbered #136 rather than #137 as in the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.8
File: LFS085

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.