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.

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