A Banjo in Babylon

” Babylon” ,Psalm 137 is read against the backdrop of the Babylonian exile, often interpreted as a metaphor for personal exile and the search within. The psalm is generally understood as an allegory for sinful thought which is brought into question and forces a reflection on the reader or listener.babylon-1

Don McClean recorded verse 1 on his American Pie album, a wistful rendition on banjo which placed the listener within the biblical context from which the verses were composed. He captured an aesthetic balance between sadness, learning and hope in which the music and text share equal billing without conforming to each other. 

By the waters
The waters
Of Babylon.

We lay down and wept
And wept
For thee Zion.

We remember
Thee remember
Thee remember
Thee Zion

William Blake, Nebukadnezar

William Blake, Nebukadnezar



p>” … the composer retells a text by

creating a particular feeling or mood musically. Music breathes life into the text through

its use of devices such as tone, rhythm, phrasing, versification etc. In setting a particular

text to music, the resultant product is different in its interpretation than are the words on

their own. The composer also has control over the musical aesthetics to which the words

are set, and with each choice made, they shape the resultant “new” text with which future

audiences will engage.”

The closing verse has proven to be problematic, ” Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock”, implies certain ethical implications which cannot be wiggled out of in the literal sense. C.S. Lewis has stated:

” I can use even the horrible passage in 137 about dashing the Babylonia babies against the

stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of

small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled

hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so

helpless, that in resisting them we feel that we are being cruel to animals…. Against all such

pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best. Knock

the little bastards’ brains out. And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done.” ( C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms )

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