Classic Reggae Songs in Historical Perspective
Part 1: "Rivers of Babylon"
by Eric Doumerc
By the rivers of Babylon,
Where he sat down,
And there he wept,
When he remembered Zion.
For 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 mouths,
And the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in thy sight,
O Fari !
The Melodians were a rocksteady harmony trio composed of Tony Brevett, Brent Dowe, and Trevor McNaughton. There was a fourth member, Robert Cogle, but he apparently contributed to the group only as a songwriter, not as a singer. After singing in various amateur talent shows from 1960 on, they recorded for Clement "Coxsone" Dodd in 1966, and had a series of hits for the producer Duke Reid in 1967-68. They then recorded several songs for Sonia Pottinger before working with Leslie Kong in 1969-70. They recorded an album's worth of material for Kong, notably hits like "It's My Delight" and "Sweet Sensation" (which were released in the UK on a Trojan 45 at the time and were later covered by the British reggae band UB40 in the 1980's and 1990's), but it was "Rivers of Babylon," a Rasta-influenced hymn-like song, that was to prove their biggest hit.
The song was released on Kong's Beverley's label in 1970 and was a huge hit, apparently selling 75,000 copies in the UK alone (The Guinness Who's Who of Reggae, 173). The song was made available to the non-Jamaican record-buying public in 1972 through the release of the soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come.
"Rivers of Babylon" is a reworking of two biblical Psalms which have been used in countless reggae songs and are part of Rastafarian culture, Psalm 137 and Psalm 19. Psalm 137 is actually entitled "Song of the exiles" and is about the Babylonian exile of the Israelites, telling of their dismay when their captors asked them to sing a song:
"By the rivers of Babylon,
we sat and wept
at the memory of Zion.
On the poplars there
We had hung up our harps.
For there our gaolers had asked us
To sing them a song,
Our captors to make merry,
« Sing us one of the songs of Zion ."
How could we sing a song of Yahweh
On alien soil ?"
The last verse of Psalm 19 includes a prayer to Yahweh:
"May the words of my mouth always find favour,
and the whispering of my heart,
in your presence, Yahweh,
my rock, my redeemer"
As pointed out by David S. Stowe, when the Melodians recorded "Rivers of Babylon," Psalm 137 had long been part of the Anglo-American and African-American hymn-singing traditions, and that psalm had been used in a variety of contexts, from the Puritans fleeing Catholic persecution to the anti-slavery campaign in the 19th century. The psalm had also been of particular importance to the Pilgrim Fathers who arrived in America on The Mayflower and who must have felt like strangers in a strange land.
When the Melodians recorded "Rivers of Babylon," Rastafarian culture was gaining ground in Jamaica thanks to the work of Burning Spear ("Door Peep," 1969) , the Abyssinians ("Satta Amasa Gana ," "Declaration of Rights," both recorded in 1969) and the Wailers ("Duppy Conqueror," 1970). In the early 1970's, Rastafarianism became increasingly popular with reggae musicians and the Melodians' song reflects that influence.
The fact that they chose Psalm 137, the " song of the exiles," is important as the Rastafarians consider themselves as exiles in Babylon, as prisoners in a "strange land." So, like their African-American brothers, the Rastafarians used the Christian message, the Bible, and subverted them to tell their own story. Rastafarian culture works by borrowing from the Bible and then moulding it to fashion it in a particular way. This is visible in the song's last words (" O Fari") and in the reference to "King Alpha." " Fari" is of course an abbreviation of " Rastafari" and "King Alpha" is just one of the many titles Rastafarians use to address their god at the beginning of prayer meetings or "grounations" (" King of Kings, Lords of Lords, the Alpha and the Omega").
According to Brent Dowe, when it was first released in Jamaica, the song was banned by the government on account of its potentially subversive Rastafarian references, and it was only after Leslie Kong started questioning that ban that the government lifted it. Kong argued that this psalm had been sung by Christians "since time immemorial" (Stowe, 108-109).
"Rivers of Babylon" later appeared on the soundtrack to Perry Henzell's film The Harder They Come and was cleverly used to point out the feeling of isolation and despair the main character must have felt when his mother tells him that he must strike out on his own in Kingston. Indeed, the main character in the film, Ivan, is a migrant from the countryside and feels completely lost in Kingston. The Melodians' plaintive harmonies can be heard in the distance in the key scene when he realises that he is an exile too- an exile in the big city.
The song's popularity led to the release of a version by the deejay Samuel the First entitled "Sounds of Babylon" (available on Keep On Coming Through the Door: Jamaican Deejay Music, 1969-1973, Trojan, 1988) and prompted I-Roy to record his own version of the story in the mid-1970's (the stunning "Jordan River," available on his LP Heart of a Lion, 1978).
But the strangest incarnation of that song was probably the one released in 1978 by the European-Caribbean disco group Boney M, which has slightly different lyrics to the Jamaican version as it replaces " O Fari" with " here tonight," and "King Alpha's song" with "the lord's song"- two substantial changes which removed the song's Rastafarian overtones. Several members of the band were of Caribbean origin (Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett were both born in Jamacia, and Bobby Farrell was born in Aruba) and may have become familiar with the song through The Harder They Come soundtrack. Boney M's version was a huge hit all over Europe, reaching number one in many countries' charts. The message may have been different and not conveyed in the same way but the song had found a bigger international audience that the band, the label and producers couldn't have imagined.
Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. The Rough Guide to Reggae. Rough Guides: London, 1997.
Larkin, Colin. The Guinness Who's Who of Reggae. 1994.
Stowe, David S. "Babylon Revisited: Psalm 137 as American Protest Song" Black Music Research Journal, Vol,32, No1 (Spring 2012).
The New Jerusalem Bible. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd: London, 1990.
Eric Doumerc is the author of the book I-Roy, about the reggae legend
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