"Rivers of Babylon" is a Rastafarian song written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaicanreggae group The Melodians in 1970. The lyrics are adapted from the texts of Psalms19 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. The B-side of the single, "Brown Girl in the Ring", also became a hit.
The song is based on the BiblicalPsalm 137:1-4, a hymn expressing the lamentations 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 10 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?
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. The original version specifically refers to Rastafarian belief in Haile Selassie, by changing references to "the Lord" in the Biblical text to "Far-I" and "King Alpha". Both terms refer to Selassie (Selassie's wife Menen Asfaw is known as Queen Omega). In addition, the term "the wicked" replaces the neutral "they" of Psalm 137 in the line "they that carried us away captive required of us a song...". According to David Stowe,
Brent Dowe, the lead singer of the Melodians, told Kenneth Bilby that he had adapted Psalm 137 to the new reggae style because he wanted to increase the public's consciousness of the growing Rastafarian movement and its calls for black liberation and social justice. Like the Afro-Protestant Revival services, traditional Rastafarian worship often included psalm singing and hymn singing, and Rastas typically modified the words to fit their own spiritual conceptions; Psalm 137 was among their sacred chants.
After its release in 1970, the song quickly became well known in Jamaica. According to Brent Dowe, the song was initially banned by the Jamaican government because "its overt Rastafarian references ('King Alpha' and 'O Far-I') were considered subversive and potentially inflammatory". Leslie Kong, the group's producer, attacked the government for banning a song with words taken almost entirely from the Bible, stating that the Psalms had been "sung by Jamaican Christians since time immemorial". The government lifted the ban. After that, it took only three weeks to become a number one hit in the Jamaican charts.
An early reggae classic, "Rivers of Babylon" was remixed in 1970 in typical Jamaican dub fashion. One variation of the recording became "Sound of Babylon", another reggae classic featuring DJ/rapper Samuel The First, one of the Jamaican deejays who pioneered rap as early as the 1950s. "Sound of Babylon" includes several samples of the Melodians' original vocal as well as overdubbed mystical Rastafarian comments by Samuel The First. His version can be found on the 1988 CD Jamaican Deejay Music 1969-1973 - Keep on Coming Through the Door… (Trojan CDTRL255).
"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 no. 1 position in the UK for five weeks and was also the group's only significant US chart entry, peaking at no. 30 in the Pop charts. Boney M.'s version of the song remains one of the top ten all-time best-selling singles in the UK, where it is one of only seven songs to have sold over 2 million copies. In Canada, the song was a Top 25 hit on the RPM magazine top 100 singles chart and reached no. 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.
The Rastafarian language was excised from the Boney M. version of the lyrics. They did perform an early mix of the song in a German TV show singing "How can we sing King Alpha's song", as in the Melodians version, although it was changed to "the Lord's song", restoring the original biblical words, in the released versions. To fit the meter, "O Far-I" became "here tonight" rather than the Biblical original "O Lord".
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 no. 20 in the UK charts, radio stations suddenly flipped the single, seeing "Brown Girl in the Ring" going all the way to no. 2 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 no. 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 no. 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)"
"Rivers of Babylon" / "Mary's Boy Child" / "Oh My Lord" is a 1988 remix single, 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 most successful single releases ever. Although their remix album sold well, the single failed to chart.
The song was parodied by The Barron Knights in their UK comedy hit "A Taste Of Aggro" (1978), in which the lyrics are changed to "There's a dentist in Birmingham, he fixed my crown / And as I slept, he filled my mouth with iron". The song was their biggest hit, reaching number 3 in the UK charts.
Macedonian band Anastasia recorded a version of this song in Old Slavic language for their album Melourgia in 1997.
Catalan musician Quimi Portet, former member of the Spanish rock band El Último de la Fila, also composed a version called "Rius de Babylon". The lyrics are translated into the Catalan language. In the song's video the musician performs a sort of Tai Chi dance in a screen divided in two parts with subtitles in the Basque language.