There We Wept When We Remembered Zion
It is not often that history preserves a memorable record of the sorrow of a people captured and exiled from their own country. Too often the trials of the conquered are eventually forgotten just as the American Indians were. Their survival is often unaccounted for because the exiles may become assimilated among the conquering peoples.
I am fascinated by the enduring power of the Reggae song, By the Rivers of Babylon which has been recorded several times since it first came out in 1970, especially intrigued because the ancient history of the Jewish people is preserved in the lyric. The Jamaican composers, Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians used versions of the ancient Psalms 137 and 19 to write their song. The Psalms come out of the Jewish religious tradition, composed by “the psalmist” when the people were exiled from Israel and taken into captivity by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. After seventy years in Babylon, the survivors were granted clemency by the Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great, when he conquered Babylon. They were allowed to return to Israel, “the promised land,” where they rebuilt their Temple.
This song of exile found in the Psalms was adopted by Jamaicans who were enslaved by the British during the era of colonization. Like many Africans, they were deported to foreign countries as slaves to white owners. Some Jamaicans, perhaps up to 5% of the population, became a group known as Rastafarians, named after Ras Tafari, Emperor Haile Selassie I, their hero and deity.
Rastafarians regard 'Ethiopia' as their homeland and therefore like the ancient Jews of Israel, also believe themselves exiled. The Rastas regard their island nation of Jamaica as a hell on earth. 'Ethiopia', the homeland, a place of fond memories of freedom and life prior to oppression, has assumed the aspect of Heaven, not a place in the sky, but a heavenly paradise on Earth. They cherish the expectation of eventually leaving Jamaica to return to Africa. Read here for more info.
Much of the appeal of the song, a reason it is recorded over and over again, is theevocative and beautiful Jamaican folk melody, written and originally recorded by The Melodians in a style known as "Rock Steady" at the time when it replaced Ska.
“By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down,
And there we wept when we remembered Zion.
And there we wept when we remembered Zion.
Oh the wicked carried us away, captivity required from us a song.
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?
So let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in thy sight, over I.”
Here is the original Psalm 137:
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”
The last two lines of the Rastafarian song come from a different text, Psalm 19:14. “Over I” is not recognizable to me as being from the Bible, “Lord Jehovah,” being perhaps a close translation. The Rastas address God as “Jah,” a name given to God in Psalm 68:4 which reads, "Sing unto God, sing praises to His name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name Jah, and rejoice in him."
In relation to Jah and the Rastas' identification as children of Jah, see Psalm 82:6: "I said, 'Ye are gods'; ye are sons of the Most High" (KJV) which provides the biblical basis for Rastas' claim to their own divinity as followers of Jah. Rastas are sparks of the divine. (from Tuning Hebrew Psalms to Reggae Rhythms, an article by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell.)
This song demonstrates the power and universal appeal that music can have. Its enduring popularity is a result of how eloquently it speaks for the cause of the oppressed and displaced. We in America might remember the plight of the Cherokee Indians, famously removed from their homes and driven along the Trail of Tears to reservation lands in Oklahoma. Songwriters have attempted to commemorate the exile of the Cherokees in a memorable song known to all (such as the rock-pop song “Cherokee Nation,” of the sixties sung by Paul Revere and the Raiders) but they have not been as successful as the Melodians were with By the Rivers of Babylon. However, like the Israelites, the Cherokee too have survived as a tribe both in Oklahoma and even in their original East Coast homelands.