One of the best song lyrics ever

By the rivers of Babylon

The middle of Lent is approaching, exciting because it’s the Pink Sunday in the middle of so much purple, because it’s Mothering Sunday, because it’s the one that starts by encouraging us to rejoice;  and also it has Psalm 136/137 as its responsorial Psalm for this year, Year B.

This has to be one of the best song lyrics ever written.  It’s a good length (four verses);  it’s regular without being repetitive or boring;  it’s poignant, but not simply miserable;  and it’s beautiful.  It’s also elegant, witty and self-reflexive: it is a song written about the impossibility of writing a song. It talks about the impossibility of singing, while singing.

Initial S with illustration for Ps 137 - the best song lyric
By the rivers of Babylon, hanging harps and tragic captives
The two verses we leave out

There are two more verses, which are usually omitted in performance, as you might say.  The first one is a curse against those who attacked Jerusalem, to pull it down; the second amplifies the curse and warns Babylon that vengeance is coming, climaxing in a truly horrific image of the child of the guilty man being seized and dashed against the rock.  I’m not going to speculate about whether these verses are part of the original psalm, as I don’t have the linguistic tools or the expertise.  I would just say that this was written in a time very different and remote from our own, in a culture where cursing your enemies and seeking violent vengeance was accepted, expected and even virtuous.  Jesus showed a different way, for which we are deeply grateful.  But you can’t edit bits out of a historic text just because you don’t like them.  However, you can choose which bits to use in the liturgy, so it’s fair enough to stop after the four verses we have for Sunday.

Unusual shape for a psalm

The form is really unusual.  It has  five short lines to each verse, and the UK Response has such a strong ternary movement that it is written as three lines in the Missal (I think this is unique among the psalms).  The Response has an exclamation mark, which is again unusual, but intended to show strong feeling (which, as the words are a self-curse, is also arresting).  The line of the verses looks short, but in fact it rolls on like a great wave, with the parallelism  (‘our captors, for songs; our oppressors, for joy’) that is so strong a feature of the psalms here deepening the feeling and accumulating it until the wave breaks into the response.  It reminds me of the movement of the lines in ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ when you suddenly realise that each seven-line stanza is only one sentence (a wonderful piece of hymn translation).

It’s a perfect lyric because it is attractive in both shape and content, and you can see immediately why so many people have wanted to set it to music.  Presumably some are attracted more by the form than the matter, and vice versa, but the whole is irresistible to musicians.  From Palestrina to Don Maclean, from Victoria to Boney M, it calls out to be set to a good tune, and the tune we make never fulfils all our aspirations, so we have to keep trying.

Singing a sad song

Unlike many psalms, though, it is only rarely used in the liturgy (this is its one outing as a Sunday psalm, so only once every three years).  I think this is because it is painful to sing.  It is a lament.  Crucially, it is in the past tense, so we are looking back at past rather than undergoing present suffering, and I think this is because it would be unbearable if it were in the present tense.  As well as a lament, it is a prayer for survival.  We are reminded of the Jewish orchestra in Terezin concentration camp.  Singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land has been a part of the Jewish experience for centuries.  As it says in the Book of Tobit,’I give him thanks in the land of my captivity'(ch 13).  The paradox of making a song to renounce music is itself comforting.  If we were not able to look back at the experience from a better place, we would not be able to address it at all.

Setting the scene : water and trees

The words are immediately gripping, and we identify with them so simply that it’s easy to miss how clever they are.  ‘By the (rivers or waters) of Babylon/there we sat and wept, remembering Zion’, and we are immediately there in the story, remembering, or imagining, if we are lucky,  how it feels to be desolate.  The waters of Babylon remind the psalmist of the beloved and blessed river Jordan, but the setting is also somewhere which should be a place of pleasant repose: ‘near restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit’ (Psalm 22/23) and every locus amoenus has a water feature.  River banks are green and pleasant places.

Narcissus by a piscina
Water, trees, and greenery : must be a locus amoenus

Here are also trees, and it was only when I came to think about this that I realised that I think of them as weeping (of course) willows, because that’s what I associate with rivers.  These are poplars, because that’s what grows in the Holy Land, but apparently ones that look like willows, according to the Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible.  Job has willows by the stream (40, v.22) which are also translated as poplars.  It seems that foreign tree names are as tricky to translate as exact species of fish.  The US translation has aspens. When I was little, reading Anne of Green Gables in an English edition, one of the later volumes was called Anne of Windy Willows.  I felt cheated to discover it was Anne of Windy Poplars in the US and Canada, but I reckon this is another case of the same overlap.

Willows on the riverbank
Willows (or poplars, or aspens) by the water

The trees are where the harps are hung….and left behind.  This is a total renunciation of music, and goes with the awful self-curses which make up the Response.  Remember, this is in a culture where every joyful event, every victory, is marked by singing a new song.  Here though, my tongue should cleave (CAN cling) to my mouth, I should be unable ever to sing or even speak, and my right hand, the one I use to play, should wither and be of no further use.  I shall not need my harp, so I hang it on a tree (I don’t destroy it, because others might be able to use it) and I leave it behind.  Rivers mark borders as well as resting places.

Musical instruments hung on a tree
Hanging up all sorts of instruments
Not silence but silenced

The idea of silencing people is a terrifyingly powerful act.  That is why the protests where people sew up their mouths are especially horrific.  Even a taped mouth produces a visceral fear in the onlooker.  It seems even worse than gagging, because it obliterates the means of communication (remember that bit in The Matrix, where Neo’s mouth is removed).  Taking away someone’s voice is a sign of complete hostile power (the legend of Philomela, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid, the Church’s attitude to female voices singing or speaking until very lately).  This is why speech therapists are so important, and why what they do has so much impact.

What had happened before the psalm was written

The link between the First Reading and the chosen psalm this week is particularly clear.  The first reading tells the history of the destruction of the Temple and the whole of Jerusalem, with Nebuchadnezzar carrying the survivors off to Babylon and into captivity,  but ends on a note of hope as Cyrus, in a voice like a bugle, says that God has ordered the building of a new Temple in Jerusalem.  He continues,’Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him!  Let him go up.’  This would truly be a situation full of joy,  and therefore, naturally,  songs of joy. ‘I will come to the altar of God, the God of my joy.  My redeemer, I will thank you on the harp, O God, my God’ (Ps 42/43).

Jerusalem the other character in the story

Zion or Jerusalem is lovingly named in every verse, in the context of remembering, not forgetting, or singing.  The song itself does what it is talking about not being able to do, and the tenses move from a simple dreadful past (sat and wept, hung up our harps) to a past conditional (how could we sing) and then pivots towards the future: ‘if I forget…if I prize not Jerusalem’.  The psalmist moves from renunciation to a determination to keep the song going, and prays only for the physical capacity to do so, for the memory to stay green.  Like Henley’s Invictus, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, who specifically rejects ‘eternal silence’, this perfect lyric is a testimony to the unquenchable human spirit, so it never goes out of fashion.  From the ashes of desolation arises a strong determination never to give up, never to stop singing.


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Musical instruments (for holy purposes)

Angels playing musical instruments

I suspect we get most of our ideas about holy musical instruments from pictures rather than from the Bible or devotional literature. Christmas card pictures show trumpeting angels, sometimes angels with lyres, occasionally a shepherd with a pipe in the crowd scenes. Scenes of heaven in altar pieces and illuminated manuscripts show orchestras of angels as well as the usual choirs, and some angels clearly have very good flying muscles, as they are supporting little organs which must be quite heavy (perhaps there are a couple of cherubs round the back helping, like the organ blowers in Victorian church pictures).

Real angels, real instruments

There are a couple of really encouraging things about this. One is that music is seen as such an integral part of the Kingdom. Another is that they are using real instruments most of the time. The lyres can look a bit ethereal, but the trumpets and the lutes, trombones and serpents must be drawn from life and they aren’t instruments to make quiet little polite noises but a group that would make you pay attention.  And a third thing is that singing is an integral part of all this, which is very encouraging for all singers.  It should be encouraging for non-singers too : just as I look forward to eyes and ears that work properly when I get to heaven, so someone who has always been afraid or ashamed to sing will be given a most beautiful voice so that they will really enjoy using it to praise God.

Instruments in the psalms

There aren’t any illustrations in the Bible, so where do painters and illuminators get their information from?  The answer of course is mostly the Psalms, the original hymn book for the people of God.  We have a different musical culture from that of the countries where the Bible was written, so we don’t sing them the way they were originally sung, but we do have many of the same instruments.

Some time ago I started keeping a list of instruments in the psalms as they were mentioned. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is quite extensive.  I’m not going to give the references because they come up repeatedly, and also it varies between Bible translations, but we have mentions of harps, lyres, ten-stringed lutes, ordinary lutes, trumpets, horn, pipe, viols, psaltery, tambourines and cymbals (those are in the Judith Canticle, but I’m including it because we sing it as a psalm), timbrels and tabrets.  I had to look the last two up, but as you might expect they are percussion, versions of mini-drums and tambourines.  One of the sources of information says sniffily ‘popular with women’, which I think means light enough to play while dancing.  I am slightly sorry to have to let go of my mental image of a timbrel as a small musical cart, but there you are, sometimes knowledge comes at a price.

Human voices ever singing

As well as all these, the psalms give pride of place to the human voice. ‘Melodious song’ is an expression used as another instrument, and quite right too.  Singing a new song was the way to celebrate a victory or an achievement, and that’s why so many psalm start with a call to ‘sing a new song’, and feel so fresh.  There are shouts of victory included as part of the musical offering, and if they were rhythmic like the British three cheers, you can see how that would work.

More unusual instruments

There isn’t a mention of drums as such in the Bible (not in the King James version, anyway; I was so surprised that I checked in Cruden’s Concordance and it’s not there).  I still think they are probably the oldest instrument, but I think they don’t qualify as a holy instrument because big drums sound bellicose and/or were used in other cultures for worship of idols or for orgies.  They aren’t seen as a desirable accompaniment to the psalms!  But you do need rhythm instruments, especially if you are dancing, and we know David danced and sang at the same time, so we can think of his psalm tunes as also dances.  So this is why we have the tabrets and the timbrels: they are rhythm instruments, but smaller ones with no martial overtones.

However, there’s no shortage of big instruments with a deep sound.  ‘The mountains and the trees of the fields shall clap their hands’ and the rivers too, and it’s wonderful to think what that would sound like if we had ears to hear.  The Lord can send out thunder and the mighty winds from his treasuries whenever he needs them as part of the chorus.  It’s not just in the psalms, too;  you can hear, in the account of God coming to talk to Elijah in his still small voice, that the whole sequence is built up like a film score.  God knows how deeply music affects our nature because he made us to be like him; and music would not be so fundamental to us if it were not to him.  We can’t hear the music of the spheres (one of the great disappointments of my life when some scientist pointed out that there’s no atmosphere to transmit the sound), but I bet God can.

What about harps?

I don’t think any instrument is intrinsically holy, any more than any language, but most people would reckon on the harp as the quintessential instrument for holy purposes.  I think we can blame St John for the emphasis on harps and heaven, because it’s in Revelation, but I’m not sure how musical he was because the songs he offers us (also in Revelation) would be extremely difficult actually to sing (which is why Handel only took little bits of them for Messiah).   These would be small hand-held harps, so a bit more like ukuleles, really, rather than those enormous concert harps that you see in nineteenth-century orchestras (usually women playing those too, but you absolutely couldn’t dance carrying one of those!).

I think it’s interesting that the picture of utter desolation involves hanging up your harps and refusing to sing (Psalm 136/137) ; this would be unthinkable unless all hope were gone, and that is why it is so poignant.  I’ve never been that keen on harps myself, so I’m hoping there will actually be a choice in Heaven.  If we have a choice of a stringed instrument,  I’d like a theorbo (and the ability to play it).

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.