Psalm 137: The Oxford University Press Playlist

Songs of exile: a playlist for Psalm 137

Oxford University Press shared some settings of Psalm 137 on their blog, as musical accompaniment to their book about that Psalm, Song of Exile by David Stowe. This is a really useful resource, as it includes some classics that were unmissable, but also things that it would be hard to notice if one did not already know about them. For instance, this setting is titled “Wood Street,” and I never would have spotted it as a setting of this text through a search by title:

Likewise, never having watched Mad Men, I had no idea that a setting of the psalm had been included on the show:

They also introduced me to a new composer as well as a new piece of music – this setting by Jack Hodkinson:

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in teaching a course about the reception of the Bible in any medium – whether music, film, literature, or the visual arts – is that there is so very much material, spanning countless centuries (except in the case of movies and TV, obviously). Do others have a method for finding out what is there, and getting some sort of handle on the material?

Another conundrum that I often face is how to decide what to include from among the many possibilities. Psalm 137 has been set to music enough times that one could just focus on music, and even narrow it down to one genre of music such as choral works, or one time period, or one tradition, and still have enough to discuss. Of course, the discussion can be richer if different genres, time periods, and traditions are included – although there is a need at least from time to time to dive deeper rather than broadly, focusing in on a single moment in history or a single composer.

On the one hand, I am very eager to include neglected composers, especially when the neglect is due to the favoring of white males over women and people with other shades of skin pigmentation. On the other hand, there is something that is lost if works that have truly become classics in the full sense of the world are simply ignored. And there simply isn’t room to include everything. And so there may well be better choices to make, ethically and/or pedagogically. But ultimately it is inevitable that some things are going to be left out, and I can never seem to entirely stop feeling badly as well as second-guessing myself.

So why don’t I just encourage you to go head over to the Oxford University Press blog, to explore and listen to the pieces of music that are part of their Psalm 137 playlist. And then let me know which are your favorites, which were new to you, what they left out that you think they ought to have included, and anything else that you might want to share with me after your listening experience over there.

I will be blogging soon about laments and Lamentations as a form of music more generally, and Psalm 137 is an example of that subgenre. This particular lament deserves discussion in relation to its words as well as musical settings. It deserves to have been singled out so often for special attention. Not all laments wish ill on adversaries, pronouncing a blessing on those who dash their small children against rocks. But anyone who has lost children as a result of an attack by others will probably empathize with the sentiment expressed on some level, however much they may ultimately decide on a cognitive level to reject it.

Here are the words of Psalm 137 (NRSV):

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
 On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
 For there our captors
    asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

 How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
    Down to its foundations!”
 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
    Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!

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  • John MacDonald

    My favorite take on Psalm 137 is Boney M’s.

    “Rivers of Babylon” is a Rastafarian song written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians in 1970. The lyrics are adapted from the texts of Psalms 19 and 137 in the Hebrew Bible. The Melodians’ original version of the song appeared in the soundtrack album of the 1972 movie The Harder They Come, making it internationally known.

    The song was popularized in Europe by the 1978 Boney M. cover version, which was awarded a platinum disc and is one of the top ten all-time best-selling singles in the UK:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vz6LRBLPKSM

  • ccws

    Check this one out:

    “Choral work juxtaposing the spiritual ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ with excerpts from Psalm 137 ‘By the waters of Babylon’ and Isaiah 32 ‘Be of good courage, and God shall strengthen your heart’; originally composed for the choir of Central Baptist Church, Wayne, PA for a worship series on the plight of refugees…” ~Robert A.M. Ross

    https://soundcloud.com/robert-ross-9/song-of-exile-1988

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Wonderful – thank you for sharing this!