"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 Melodians' original versions of the song appeared in the soundtrack to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come and the 1999 Nicolas Cage movie Bringing Out the Dead. It became popularized in Europe by the 1978Boney M. cover version.
The song is based on the Biblical Psalm 137:1-4, a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC: Previously the Kingdom of Israel, after being united under Kings David and Solomon, was split in two, with the Kingdom Of Israel in the north, conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC which caused the dispersion of 11 of the 12 tribes of Israel. The southern Kingdom of Judah (hence the name Jews), home of the tribe of Judah and part of the Tribe of Levi, was free from foreign domination until the Babylonian conquest to which Rivers Of Babylon refers.
|“||By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion... They carried us away in captivity requiring of us a song... Now how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?||”|
|“||Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight...||”|
It is one of a few pop songs whose lyrics come directly from the Bible. The melody bears a strong resemblance to "How Dry I Am".
In the Rastafarian faith, the term "Babylon" is used for any governmental system which is either oppressive or unjust. In Jamaica, Rastafarians also use "Babylon" to refer to the police, often seen as a source of oppression because they arrest members for the use of marijuana (which is sacramental for Rastafarians). Therefore, "By the rivers of Babylon" refers to living in a repressive society and the longing for freedom, just like the Israelites in captivity. Rastafarians also identify themselves as belonging to the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Rivers of Babylon was covered in 1978 by Germany-based disco band Boney M, with a version that was released as a single. Boney M.'s release stayed at the #1 position in the UK for five weeks and was also the group's only significant US chart entry, peaking at #30 in the Pop charts. In the UK Boney M. sold more than 1,985,000 copies of the song, meaning the single was awarded a platinum disc and is one of the top ten all-time best-selling singles in the UK. In Canada, the song was a Top 25 hit on the RPM Magazine top 100 singles chart and reached #9 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The song was the first single from the band's equally successful 1978 album Nightflight to Venus. Some controversy arose when the first single pressings only credited Frank Farian and Reyam (aka Hans-Jörg Mayer) of Boney M; after an agreement with Dowe and McNaughton, these two were also credited on later pressings.
Boney M. performed an early mix of the song in a German TV-show singing "How can we sing King Alpha's song" although it was changed to "the Lord's song" (as in the biblical quote) in the released versions. King Alpha refers to Haile Selassie. Selassie's wife Menen Asfaw is known as Queen Omega aka The Queen.
Just as in the case of "Ma Baker", "Rivers of Babylon" established what was to become a habit of Boney M. singles, namely that the original pressings featured an early version that was soon replaced by a more widely available mix.
The initial single mix of "Rivers of Babylon" is most notable for lead singer Liz Mitchell's ad-libs (Dark tears of Babylon, you got to sing a song, sing a song of love, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah) between the two verses. On subsequent single pressings, only the 'yeah's were maintained. The full ad-libs however re-emerged in the US-only 12" version.
The single mix differs from the album version by having Liz Mitchell singing the verse "Let the words of our mouth ..." with Frank Farian, on the LP, Farian sings this as a solo part; it is also slightly shorter, the instrumental passage before the last "humming" part is edited out, and the fade out is a little longer ("Oooooh of the power... yeah yeah yeah yeah" can only be heard in the single mix).
The single's B-side Brown Girl in the Ring was a traditional Caribbean nursery rhyme. When "Rivers of Babylon" had slipped to #20 in the UK charts, radio stations suddenly flipped the single, seeing "Brown Girl in the Ring" going all the way to #3 and becoming a hit in its own right. The early single pressing features the full-length 4:18 version with a chorus bit being edited out. The single mix is also slightly different from the album version which features steel drums on the outro riff of the song, the single mix doesn't.
"Brown Girl in the Ring" was also issued separately in Canada as an A-side in the summer of 1979. It reached #8 on the Canadian AC chart in July 1979, becoming the third Boney M song to reach the top 10 on that chart, after "Rivers of Babylon" and "Rasputin." On RPM's Top 100 singles chart, the song stalled at #79.
Liz Mitchell had previously recorded Brown girl in the ring in 1975 with the group Malcolm's Locks her ex-boy friend Malcolm Magaron as the lead singer, and arranger Peter Herbolzheimer accused Frank Farian for stealing his arrangement for the song. The court case ran for more than 20 years in Germany.
|"Rivers of Babylon" (Remix) /
"Mary's Boy Child / Oh My Lord" (Remix)"
|Single by Boney M.|
|from the album|
|Format||7" single, 12" single, CD-single|
|Boney M. singles chronology|
"Rivers of Babylon" / "Mary's Boy Child / Oh My Lord" is a 1988 remix single by German band Boney M., issued to launch the group's reunion, having been split since their 10th anniversary, 1986. The double-A-side single contained new mixes of the band's two very most successful single releases ever. Although their remix album sold well, the single failed to chart.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has included the song in their supplemental hymnal Singing the Journey (Hymn #1042) .
Canadian Christian rock band The Kry covered this song on their 1996 album "What About Now" (although the song was titled "By the Rivers of Babylon").
The Neville Brothers has a version of the song on their Walkin' in the Shadow of Life CD released on October 19, 2004 on the Chordant label.
Rob Tobias and Friends recorded their version of the song for the "Sparks" CD released in 2006 (Maximio Productions). One lyric change noted was the line "How can we sing a 'holy' song in a strange land."
Linda Ronstadt also recorded a version of this song.
A Polish Christian rock group 2Tm2,3 performed an acoustic version of "Rivers of Babylon" based on the Boney M recording.
Macedonian band Anastasia recorded a version of this song in Old Slavic language for their album Melourgia in 1997.
The Mexican group Banda Toro recorded an Spanish version named Ríos de Babilonia in 1993 for the album of the same name.
The other Mexican group Los Rehenes recorded an instrumental version in 1989 for their album El amor no se esconde (In English Love does not hide).
The song Rivers of Babylon features prominently in the 2009 Kazakh film Tulpan. It is also played as background music in the 2009 film Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel. Also, it is used in the 2010 movie Jack Goes Boating, in the opening scene and a couple of other important scenes.
The song appears as part of the soundtrack in the 2009 video game Rabbids Go Home.