Superflumina Babylonis: The Career of a Song in History


In the 16th Century Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was an Italian Renaissance composer of sacred music. Motet Superflumina Babylonis  was part of his early church liturgy project. A random discovery, mesmerized, I've been rotating it almost daily since 2003. Ethereal, celestial, the song transports me to higher ground. But I don’t speak Latin, so I traced it through history, back to its origin, Psalm 137.  



By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;  they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if

I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy…

Psalm 137

The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates & Tigris. The Psalm expresses the deep sorrow of a defeated people, the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC.  It reflects the relentless yearning for Jerusalem, the sadness of the Israelites, the ironic, tragic humiliation of being asked by their conquerors to perform,  to "sing the Lord's song in a foreign land". They refuse, leaving their harps hanging on trees. The longing for everything that’s home and the dream of redemption.

But then, Psalm 137 quickly gets get dark and gory, turning from lamentation to a blood oath---to remember Jerusalem. It ends with violent fantasies of revenge that awaits a  "Daughter of Babylon,” of the delight of  he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. The wrath of God, of  human hands made strong  by the hand of the almighty”  Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to the prophet Jeremiah, For David. By Jeremias, in Captivity.

Catastrophic loss, displacement, mourning, then rage and vengeance: This is the engine of human history. The propellant of War, Politics, Power, Religion, Community, Society, Oppression, Exploitation, Enslavement, Rape, Resistance. Of course Psalm 137 has survived long after peoples, tribes, and nations have not.. It’s a song of freedom buried deeply in collective human hearts, written into our DNA over centuries of hope, of struggle and prayer---for the possibility of liberation, grace, and justice. Across all the geographic, linguistic, ideological and religious lines that separate us, we dream. It’s the song of the refugee, the displaced, the destitute and the warrior. In the 13th Century during the Holy Crusades to retake Jerusalem from Muslims Pope Gregory again invokes  Psalm 137 to rally his armies before departing on the bloody Crusades. Holy and bloody, guns and God. The yearning is never far from the bleeding.

In the 19th Century Psalm 137 reappears in the words of the great American social reformer, writer and statesman, Frederick Douglass. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement known for his dazzling oration and incisive antislavery writing.  Frederick Douglass stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that the enslaved did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.  Many Northerners also found it hard to believe that such a great orator had been a slave.

In 1852---some 13 years before slavery was completely abolished, Douglass was asked  to deliver a Fourth of July speech by Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Frederick Douglas was astonished by the absurdity of this request, “ he asked,   comparing their request---that a slave should be asked to talk about 4th of July, America’s Independence day--to  the actions of the Babylonian captors asking the Jews to sing and play their harps while captive in a foreign land. “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems---an inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”  For Douglass America is Babylon. It was not until December 6, 1865 – That the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution was ratified officially abolishing slavery. The last of the enslaved were finally free.

In the 20th Century, Psalm 137 entered popular culture again, by way of Jamaica. "Rivers of Babylon" is a Rastafari song written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians in 1970.  Rastas assert that Zion i.e., Africa, especially Ethiopia, is a land Jah promised to them. To achieve this, they reject modern western society, calling it "Babylon", which they see as entirely corrupt. Rastas claim to be the real Children of Israel. They seek to validate a link between Ethiopia and Israel, pointing to the title, Lion of Judah, their goal is to repatriate to Mount Zion.  The Rastafari movement was a  religious movement that arose in the 1930s in Jamaica, a country with a predominantly Christian culture where 98% of the people were the black descendants of enslaved people. Most of its adherents worship Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia who ruled 1930–1974, as God incarnate, the Second Advent, or the reincarnation of Jesus.

Bob Marley is the Patron Saint of a popular undergraduate course I teach, Protest Music in History.  I’m a sociologist interested in the interrelationships between religion, identity, popular culture, spirituality, faith politics and community. From the first moment I heard Palestrina’s exquisite Superflumina Babylonis, it haunted me. So I followed.  It connects me to my own voice, heals my hurts, empowers me to fight back. It helps me open myself to Higher Power, to you, to history, and the world.  I hear this song in Johnny Thunder’s So Alone, filled with the desperation of addiction, the cockroach soul of the defeated junkie. I heard it the fall of  CBGBs in 2005, in the death of the original Ramones, and Ramones and the defeat of NYC by the money people.   I played it every day after 2012 SuperStorm Sandy, when I lost my home, my car, by the rivers of Long Beach NY, our community was displaced, dispersed, after the ocean met the bay midpoint on our barrier Island.

What does HOME mean to you?   What does HOME mean to all the vibrant, creative Black lives being cut short every day? To the Native Peoples fighting for water, for holy ground, for their dignity, for the Earth? To the people of Ukraine. To the the frightened, starving, stateless refugees dying to reach safe harbor?  To women in this age of increasingly brutal misogyny,   To the enslaved: Stolen every day for sex trafficking, forced labor. For kids trapped in abusive families, bullied at home, in school and on the streets for being who they are? What does home mean to the transgender body and soul? To LGBTQ people of the world ? To the Jewish people, now, in 5783 (2022-2023)?

We make a choice every day: To love or hate, to fight back or be crushed,  to have faith or give up, to heal or to kill, to live in peace or be destroyed in war.  We Are All Shows of the Same Sun It’s a WE world---we cannot do it alone. Reach out—to your neighbor, to your community, to you enemy, to your guiding force. We are never alone, we are always loved, we are strong, we are good and we will be free.


An earlier version of this essay was presented as “Superflumina Babylonis:  The Career of a Song Over Time” in a panel I organized titled "Songs of Freedom: Protest Music in History,” at The Museum of Pop Culture  (MoPop)Seattle Washington.