Rivers of Babylon

Whenever I put on one of my very small number of reggae CDs, I’m always delighted to listen to “Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians:

By the rivers of Babylon,
where we sat down,
and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
‘Cause the wicked carried us away in captivity,
required from us a song,
How can we sing King Alpha’s song
in a strange land? …

And this, of course, is a very close paraphrase of the opening four verses of Psalm 137, the inspiration also of Verdi’s famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco, here in the King James Version:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. 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?

(The beginning of the Psalm is far better well known than the end, with the very violent sentiments of its final two verses: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”)So I was very pleased today to find a terrific article by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, “Tuning Hebrew Psalms to Reggae Rhythms: Rastas’ Revolutionary Lamentations for Social Change” in Cross Currents, which presents an extraordinarily detailed account of the transformation of the ancient text into the modern, which sheds a great deal of light on what is going on in this marvellous song, with its strange composite lyric (“So, let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight…”), and which provides a fine commentary on the politics of Rastafarianism. Good stuff.

I was also pleased to come across an online Anglo-Saxon translation of the Psalm, too.

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