By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
There we wept
When we remembered Zion
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Ruins of Babylon c. 1932
There are very few pop songs using lyrics which come directly from the bible. This song is an exception, using words taken from the Old Testament, and to be specific, the Book of Psalms. Psalm 137 is about the Jewish people in exile around 600 BC being desperate to live in a free homeland. How can they practice their religion in a strange land?
The song, written by members of the reggae band The Melodians, was a huge hit. Cover versions many years later had even greater success, especially that by Boney M. In the UK, Boney M’s cover of this song sold almost 2 million copies.
The group The Melodians was based in Kingston, Jamaica, and has a link with the Rastafari movement, which began as a part of the culture of Jamaica in the 1930s. The movement is based on Christian principles, but has some interesting additional points of view, including the use of cannabis for spiritual purposes.
The members of Rastafari believe that humankind began in Africa and that the Africans taken as slaves to other parts of the world were wronged and their destination – the place of their exile – was referred to as Babylon, as described in the Old Testament. Many Rastas, the people who believe in the movement, claim that it is a way of life and not a religion.
Whatever the truth, the song in question has a direct link with slaves taken from Africa to other parts of the world, including the West Indies and the United States, so having a knowledge of history and culture helped make the song popular.
The Melodians began making records in the 1960s and then followed the path of many musicians who began in that era. They broke up, reformed, broke up, and reformed again. A member died, another went solo, and each was replaced. It’s almost as if musical fashions follow a loop and come back into fashion.
Babylon rebuilt, c 2003
As recently as 2006, the band was back touring when original member Brent Dowe had a heart attack and died at age 59. The surviving members kept on touring. The show must go on.
At its beginning, “Rivers of Babylon” became a sort of anthem for the Rastafari movement and was used as part of the soundtrack for the 1972 movie The Harder They Come
. It was popular with other religious groups, too, because when the then Pope addressed some 300,000 Catholics in Ireland in 1979, the congregation sang “Rivers of Babylon.”
Jamaica today relies enormously on tourism. The climate and beaches are a huge attraction, but so too is the culture. The musical style of The Melodians – reggae – is the prominent and native musical style of the island. There are festivals of all shapes and sizes happening continually throughout Jamaica in which reggae features strongly.
Located in modern day Iraq, south of Baghdad, the city of Babylon has an interesting history. Beginning in the third millennium B.C., the city flourished for centuries. It straddled the Euphrates River with the Tigris not far away; hence, the song title, “Rivers of Babylon.” The spectacular hanging gardens of Babylon were once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Over time Babylon was conquered and re-conquered, until it fell into ruin and all but disappeared. Amazingly, in recent times, the dictator Saddam Hussein ordered a reconstruction of the ancient city. Some progress was made until the second of the Iraqi invasions, when much of the re-built city was “adjusted” to make way for the army of the US and its coalition partners.
In May 2009, the local government re-opened the re-constructed city of Babylon to tourists.~Cenarth Fox
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