Thursday, July 03, 2008

Surfing with Don McLean.

We join the "Neshamah interns" mid-round...

Maybe you've heard this song at the end of Don McLean's album American Pie, where he leads a group of about 5,000 people in a round. This song has the unfortunate authorial credit of "traditional," but it's derived from Psalm 137, the one that starts "By the rivers of Babylon..." Complete lyrics of this version are:

"By the waters, the waters of Babylon
We lay down and wept, and wept for thee, Zion
We remember, we remember, we remember thee, Zion."

In case you weren't paying attention in confirmation class: In 586 BCE, the Babylonians had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, the symbolic home of Israel's god. Not only that, the Babylonians had marched much of the Hebrew population off to Babylon and held them captive. Only after Persia defeated Babylon, about 50 years later, did the people of Israel get to return to their homeland, by then a decimated and temple-less shell of its former glory. In the years following the exile, an anonymous liturgist commemorated the nation's sadness and outrage with this song.

In this tiny excerpt of the psalm we get only the lament. McLean sez in his spoken midtroduction that the third line offers a "little glimmer of hope," which I suppose is true, and "that's what makes it a great song," to which I take exception. (Has he never heard "Yer Blues"?) To hear the hope, though, you have to know the whole story--that the Hebrew people would eventually return to Zion. And whoever originally wrote this song probably did so after that restoration, and so did know that part of the story. But if you imagine yourself singing the song in the position of the exiled Israel, "remembering" isn't necessarily hopeful.

The point of the psalms, like most other songs to which you sing and listen, is that you use them in your situation. This portion of Psalm 137, written after Israel's restoration, was meant to be used in worship as a lament. If you read the rest of Psalm 137, you'll notice much more than lament. There's rebellion against our captors, a faithful pledge to god, and most strikingly (and least-used), the expectation of violence against our captors' children. To use the entire psalm in worship is to embrace the complexity of the feelings surrounding your lament. But it also works with the lament distilled, as in McLean's version. The melody drips with sadness, and by joining all those voices in a round, you at least get the reassurance that 5,000 (or however many) others are equally sad. So if you're in some sad, oppressed place, singing this song could help you out, because you see that others before you have been worse off, and because you see that they got out of it. You also realize viscerally that you have friends to sing with.

There's an interesting paradox here, though. The people most likely to sing this song in today's world are, by and large, the least likely to be in a position of oppression. Look at the kids in the video. I know nothing about them, except that they know how to enjoy a good meal and one guy knows how to beatbox. And I don't know anything about the Neshamah community, except that they're Jewish. But let's face it--if you're singing a song like this in harmony, you're prospects are probably pretty good. That's not to say bad things won't happen to you--I know two pretty well-off middle class guys who've been recently laid off, and I know of plenty more such people, and they could all conceivably have this song at their disposal. In a country whose wealth is being steadily concentrated at the wealthy end, getting laid off counts as a form of oppression. But do those who are truly oppressed--whose people have a history of being oppressed and are still trapped in an economic and cultural hell with no visible escape outlets--I'm thinking mostly of poor black people in the US, but also rural whites without arable land, the people of Zimbabwe, Mexican immigrants caught between Scylla and Charybdis--do any of them have this Don McLean song at their disposal? Doubtless some do. And many more sing the psalms in different ways. But we should remain aware that, for most of us, singing a psalm of lament is useless if it's not driving us to stand with the oppressed poor in other ways.

That's most of the time. Obviously, we all go through times of needing psalms like this ourselves, and we should wallow in them. But when we're wallowing, let's hope that we have a couple, if not 5,000, other people with whom we can lament. Maybe simply having those people is the solution. I'm sure you remember when Jesus had a singalong with 5,000 people and they got hungry. They found a way.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Surfing with Joseph Arthur.

So, my hipster friend, you went to South by Southwest and you're a friggin' trapstar, while I have not left the house in months. And did you see Joseph Arthur? Did you see him sing this song? It's called "Rages of Babylon" and it's (drumroll...) a Protest Song About Iraq!

You might expect that there'd be lots of current songs likening Iraq to Babylon, and you'd be absolutely wrong. Not to say there aren't lots of songs about "Babylon," because they emerge, hot and steady, like a flow of burbling oil from beneath the sandy ground of collective unconscious. It's just that, by and large, they have nothing to do with Iraq. Mr. Arthur's song is an anomaly. (Well, OK, there's Lili Haydn. And Sheryl Crow, sort of... but only sort of.)

Where exactly is this "Babylon" that people keep writing songs about? It depends. Sometimes it depends on your genre. For instance, if you're a rock 'n' roll band that someone would conceivably describe as "rock 'n' roll," Babylon is likely a land of 24/7 debauchery, where cocaine and vomit and virgins that YOU DEFLOWERED all mingle together into some unholy mess, maybe on the floor of a temple. Think of this as the Faster Pussycat/Dolls/Turbonegro nexus.

If, on the other hand, you're a rock 'n' roll band that nobody would conceivably describe as "rock 'n' roll", and you blow your per diems on issues of Artforum, you probably see Babylon as a dead civilization or as hell. If you're honest (which you are... unrelentingly), you'll find this dead civilization/hell inside your own heart. Bands in this category include Rainbow, Celtic Frost, and Symphony X.

BUT--if you're a rock 'n' roll band that people describe as "freestyle" and you're Pajama Party, your take on Babylon is visionary and defies interpretation. You're like Herman Hesse or the Yahwist. You titled this blog. Thanks!

If you're a Rasta, you're not reading this, but everyone who is reading it is an integral cog in the Babylon machine. Don't worry, they'll soon be destroyed! If you're a mainline Christian singing a setting of Psalm 137 ("By the Rivers of Babylon"), Babylon is whichever oppressive society oppresses mainline Christians-- because, let's face it, you're just as oppressed as any impoverished descendent of the Middle Passage! Watch out, though. If you're Sinead O'Connor singing Psalm 137, Babylon is mainline Christianity. And if you're Boney M singing Psalm 137, your take on Babylon is visionary and defies interpretation.

As you may have guessed from all those choices, Mr. Arthur's more literal approach is just about the least interesting option available. It's a pretty tune, and disrupted family life is always a good angle for a protest song, but this one just seems to sit there. For one thing, there's no image as immediately affecting as Springsteen singing "Too much room in my bed, and too many phone calls" in "You're Missing" (for example). So the narrator's intimacy never really hits home.

But then, it's hard to tell whether he was going for intimacy. I mean, he did call the song "Rages of Babylon" and not "Rages of Iraq." ("Doooooo you know who has got yer back/ Throuuuuugh the rages of this Iraq?") ("Rages of This Iraq" would be much better, you're right.) He obviously wanted to stick in some metaphorical heft, to make this thing resonate beyond our current skirmish and speak to the ages. So ultimately, I'm disappointed he didn't run with the metaphor and appeal to "Babylon" in the larger sense of any of the above uses. From this song, all we learn about Babylon is that it's sandy and unpleasant for American soldiers--which I'm guessing is also the case with Iraq.