- Babylon Revisited: Psalm 137 as American Protest Song
The 1973 release of The Harder They Come (dir. Perry Henzell) announced a new era in the transatlantic flow of African music of the Americas. The Jamaican film quickly became a campus cult classic, bringing its heady mix of reggae music, ganja, and gunslinging urban rudeboy style to an enthusiastic youth audience in North America and Europe. The film’s soundtrack, featuring songs by Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, and Desmond Dekker, became a phenomenon in its own right, helping pave the way for the global success of Bob Marley. For many outside Jamaica, it was an enticing introduction to reggae music. In addition to launching the international career of the film’s star, Jimmy Cliff, the soundtrack was a boon to a Jamaican group called the Melodians. Heard twice in the film, their song “Rivers of Babylon” reworked Psalm 137 over a jaunty bass line. With its message of defiance amid social dislocation, the song offers a subtle commentary on an important relationship early in the film: the conflict between Ivan, a young man recently arrived in Kingston “from country” and the autocratic Christian preacher for whom Ivan briefly works and aggressively challenges before beginning his short career as a songwriter and ganja trader.
No song text has exerted a more sustained pull on the political imagination of Americans than Psalm 137. Contained in the Hebrew Bible, the psalm figured in the worship of the English Puritans who settled New England. It appeared in the first English-language book published in North America. [End Page 95] Almost a century and a half later, it served as the basis for a patriotic song of national independence by early America’s first significant composer, William Billings. The psalm was the centerpiece of Frederick Douglass’s great abolitionist oration, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July.” More than a century later, it reappeared in a completely new musical guise, the protoreggae version first recorded in 1969 by the Melodians. Since then, Psalm 137 has been covered numerous times by groups representing a variety of musical styles: gospel, disco, country rock, alternative, hip hop.
Why such longevity? Like many stories and passages from the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 137 is highly adaptable, open to a variety of interpretations. Its central question—How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?— has been central to the peopling of the Americas. The psalm deals with cultural dispossession and exile, pervasive experiences for large numbers of people over the course of American history. It offers a memorable image of uprooted people languishing beside a river, called to make music but unsure how to proceed. Its Babylon can stand for any oppressive power or force of injustice, whether political, cultural, or spiritual. While these meanings were resonant for early Anglo-Americans, who often perceived themselves as a persecuted people for religious or political reasons, Psalm 137’s more recent history positions it in antiracist and anticolonial movements of African Americans in the circum-Caribbean region.
Charting the evolution of the psalm from restrictive Puritan worship practices to a popular dance-hall hit underscores the challenges African Americans have spearheaded to boundaries erected by traditional European binaries: between sacred and secular, spiritual and political, mind and body, high and low culture. In the case of Psalm 137, this challenge to compartmentalization has come about through creative readings of the psalm’s political meanings. Beginning with the American Revolution but accelerating in movements against slavery and white domination of black Americans in the circum-Caribbean, the struggle against colonial oppression has worked as a solvent to dissolve the conventional binaries of European Christianity.
The biblical psalm contains just nine verses, which fall into three sections of four, two, and three verses, respectively. The opening section is best known and most widely used in subsequent musical versions:
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. [End Page 96] 3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a...