Rivers of Babylon

(A posting inspired by a random iTunes playlist. There will be more.)

What came by was the “Megamix” track from Gay Happening — a mix of five Boney M. songs: Rivers of Babylon, Sunny, Ma Baker, Daddy Cool, Rasputin. Boney M. is a disco band that originated in Germany (with West Indian members) in 1975; “Rivers of Babylon” was their greatest hit.

Gay Happening is also German. It stages “die groesste Party fuer Schwule und Lesben in Deutschland” (according to its website) and also puts out, through Dance Street Records, (re)mix albums, lots of them, from these events, suitable for home use with a few hundred of your sweatiest, most sexed-up friends (or for recollecting, or imagining, the pleasures of gay dance parties in the privacy of your own home). In the U.S., other sources put out collection after collection from gay Circuit Parties (more on the Circuit below). Although I’ve never been to a Circuit Party or a Gay Happening (but put in my disco dancing time in gay clubs in the late 70s), I have a rather large collection of these recordings, most of them freebies from gay magazines and gay porn distributors.

So one of the versions of Boney M.’s “Rivers of Babylon” — there are many — came my way. And though I’ve of course been aware, ever since the Boney M. recording came out in 1978, that there was such a thing, I had somehow never reflected on just how peculiar a disco version of this song is: the song is, after all, a Rastafarian lament for the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, scarcely consonant, I would have thought, with the sex-drenched context of gay disco dancing. It’s like dirty dancing to the pulsing beat of the Ave Maria.

But strange things happen when music travels from one context to another. Tunes, and their emotional affect, tend to overwhelm texts, so that we get that hymn to gay sluttiness, the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”, appropriated as an anthem for sporting events. I mean, even little kids shout it out.

Here’s what counts as the original of “Rivers of Babylon” (for my immediate purposes, but see below), as recorded by The Melodians in 1970 and featured prominently in the wonderful (but scarifying) 1972 Jimmy Cliff movie, The Harder They Come, which is set in a gun-ridden Jamaica and (for language enthusiasts) is worth watching just for its traverses of the creole continuum (basilect, acrolect, and all sorts of things in between):

Rivers of Babylon
(B. Dowe / F. McNaughton)

By the rivers of Babylon,
Where he sat down,
And there he went
When he remembered Zion.
But the wicked carried us away captivity
Require from us a song,
How can we sing King Alfa [Haile Selassie’s] song
In a strange land…

Sing it out loud,
Sing a song of freedom, sister,
Sing a song of freedom, brother,
We gotta sing and shout it.
We gotta talk and shout it.
Shout the song of freedom now
So that the words of our mouth
And the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in thy sight
Over I.

(Boney M. elides the Rasta stuff and alters other details.)

(I happen to have the text to hand, having used it in Language, Culture, and Society courses at Ohio State, in a previous life.)

Devout and defiant. Full of loss, longing, and hope. (Well, in the story, the Jews returned to the Promised Land.) I’ve always found the song tremendously moving.

The text is an adaptation of (parts of) Psalm 137. The beginning of the English version (which has “rivers” or “waters”, depending on which translation you read) has been set to music many times. Here’s the rest of the story, from the Wikipedia entry:

The early lines of the poem are very well known, as they describe the sadness of the Israelites, asked to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land”. This they refuse to do, leaving their harps hanging on trees. The poem then turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem. It ends with violent fantasies of revenge, telling a “Daughter of Babylon” of the delight of “he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (New International Version).

One setting, by William Billings, America’s first great choral composer, was covered by, of all people, Don McLean, as the final track in his American Pie album of 1971 — in a spare and moving version that matches the elegiac (but infectiously sing-along) first track, the famous “American Pie”:

By the waters, the waters, of Babylon
We lay down and wept
And wept
For thee, Zion;
We remember
Thee, Zion.

I continue to digress; I realize I’m getting further and further away from gay parties and gay disco music, but I’ll get back, I promise.

First digression, on William Billings. A full fourteen of his compositions are in the 1991 Sacred Harp, the compilation of shapenote music used in the tradition that I’ve been part of (in both Ohio and California) for 20-some years. Among the fourteen are several of my very favorite songs, for instance #66 Jordan (first), set to the words “There is a land of pure delight / Where saints immortal reign…” (I’ll post separately on shapenote singing, for the curious among you; I don’t recruit homosexuals, but I do recruit Sacred Harp singers. I’ll also get back to William Billings briefly, in a later posting on Fanny J. Crosby.)

Second digression, still in the Sacred Harp. More of the rivers-of-Babylon story was set to four-part music by Judy Hauff (with whom I’ve sung) in 1986, in #504 Wood Street. Text from Tate and Brady (1696):

When we our wearied limbs to rest
Sat down by proud Euphrates’ stream [the Euphrates is one of the rivers of Babylon]:
We wept with doleful thoughts oppressed,
And Zion was our mournful theme,
And Zion was our mournful theme.

Our harps that when with joy we sung
Were wont their tuneful parts to bear,
With silent strings neglected hung,
On willow trees that withered there,
On willow trees that withered there.

The setting is gorgeous, even though it seriously stretches the trebles (who sing a top harmony line; I’m a male treble, so I think about these things).

Maybe now you can see why I found Boney M.’s disco version of “Rivers of Babylon” so odd. It’s not the gay resonances; it’s the disco context. (Ok, I wouldn’t stop dancing if it came up in the dj’s mix; that beat would carry me through a lot.)

On to the gay disco context. There’s dancing in clubs (and, in the old days, in some gay bathhouses), and then there’s dancing at Gay Happenings and Circuit Parties and other organized events, which typically end up taking up a whole weekend, with dancing interrupted by sex (or vice versa, depending on your point of view). A capsule account from the American Dialect Society mailing list follows.

AMZ on 7/20/06:

On Jul 19, 2006, at 12:11 PM, Barry Popik wrote:

> This D.R. resort is filled with Maxim models from several countries; it appears that they’re doing a photo shoot. This Friday they’re having a private “white party.”

>Is this term from NYC?

White Party season is officially upon us, including a big do this weekend on the Detroit Princess riverboat…<

In what i think is an entirely separate development, there have been gay-themed “circuit parties” (google on “circuit party” for several informative sites) for over 25 years, most of them with color names. The big White Party is in Palm Springs in April; this was its 17th year.

On Jul 20, 2006, at 11:12 AM, Bill Mullins asked:

> Is Truman Capote’s famous “Black and White Ball” (1966) an antecedent?<

Probably not, though some of the circuit parties are in fact called balls (the Black and Blue Ball in Montreal in October, the Blue Ball in Philadelphia in January).  A circuit party is a one-day main event involving intense dancing for 24 hours, with accompanying sex, drinking, and (often) drugs, plus preceding events and following ones. Almost all of the participants (up to 20,000 of them at a really big party) are young gay men, many of them shirtless (or in underwear, or naked) most of the time. The rave is a related type of event. The real antecedent seems to have been the fabulous parties at the Saint, a dance club in NYC, in the late 70s (and depicted in the novel Dancer from the Dance).

What’s to add, except that they still go on?

Well, there’s a photographic account, of a meet-and-greet party event. This is another one of my collages (entirely non-X-rated), with comments from Chinese fortune cookie fortunes (hence the title, “Circuit Fortune Cookie”) plus a lot of Tarepanda (‘floppy panda’ — a cute Japanese cartoon character):

10 Responses to “Rivers of Babylon”

  1. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Ah, the dog figure on the lower center isn’t on the guy’s t-shirt; it’s a sticker I added — another Japanese cartoon figure, Afro Ken, marking the focal point of the composition.

    Yes, it took me quite a while to accumulate enough appropriate fortune cookie fortunes.

  2. David W. Fenton Says:

    Two things:

    1. I’ve always been intrigued by this Psalm. It always seems to me that musical settings of it resist its content, concentrating on the first part and ignoring the violence of the conclusion. In the runup to the Iraq war, I wrote a setting of it in which I use fragments of text drawn from it, and set them accordingly:

    a. Babylon, Weeping, Weeping for Sion.
    b. Forget not Jerusalem.
    c. Remember, O Lord, Remember!
    Dash their children against the stones!

    I wrote this in the heat of the moment, feeling so many resonances and fearing so much that turned out to have happened after all. I worried that it could never be performed because of the way the ending combines all three texts, suggesting an equivalence between the Babylonian captivity and the overrunning of Iraq. The Isreal lobby of today would crucify me, so to speak.

    An MP3 that records my crappy sound card wavetable synthesizer and a PDF of the score are here:


    2. The Saint didn’t open until 1980, while Dancer from the Dance was published in 1978, so I don’t believe it was protraying life at The Saint, but at much earlier, less commercial clubs than that.

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To David Fenton on his second point: Clearly, I misremembered in 2006. Both Holleran’s book and Larry Kramer’s Faggots had gay dance clubs in them — The Twelfth Floor in Dancer, The Toilet Bowl in Faggots (lord knows Kramer has never been subtle) — but both books came out in 1978, so The Saint can’t have been the model. Of course, there’s no reason for there to have been some specific model, and there were certainly other gay dance clubs (and baths with dance floors) around at the time.

    A few years ago, I lent the manuscript of a story from Sundance and Butch to a friend for comments, and (with my permission) she showed it to a gay friend of hers — who was particularly taken with one scene set in a gay fern bar in San Francisco. This guy was impressed with how exactly I’d caught this particular bar in words. But I had no particular bar in mind, and indeed (so far as I could recall) I had never been to a gay fern bar in San Francisco. But I can make places up.

  4. David W. Fenton Says:

    I seem to have read somewhere what the antecedents of the Twelfth Floor were, but I didn’t know what to Google to find it.

    I think Dancer from the Dance is a brilliant, lyrical book and I reread it frequently. Even though I was never part of that scene, it encompasses everything about NYC and gay life that I have always felt, and the ultimate conclusion that it’s the city we’re enamored with seems like a significant truth to me.

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