By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Psalm 137:1-4 (King James Version)
When I lived in Los Angeles from 1972 to 2000, the city was filled with men and women who lived and died on the streets. It seemed an inevitable part of urban life, where displaced humanity would collect in the hidden corners of our cities. Facilities for the mentally ill had closed, prices for homes had accelerated and more people lost their ability to own or even rent. I knew what was happening in the rust belt cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo and so many other centers of the American manufacturing industries. I knew that businesses were closing and workers and their families were left bereft, often without the pensions to which they had contributed for years. In Los Angeles, the mad dash for riches and fame demonstrated a disdain for those who were not part of the race. With two of my great friends of those times, I built a theater in the skid row district of downtown Los Angeles and the homeless were a part of life there. The images of the homeless on the streets, burning fires in barrels to keep warm, huddled in sleeping bags on the sidewalks in the shelter of downtown buildings, haunted me for years. But, like everything that has happened in my life, they receded into the eddies of my wake and eventually into the dark recesses of memory.
Lately, however, those images have been coming back to me. I thought that maybe it was because of my recent brush with mortality, maybe it was because I have been thinking more about my past, but now I realize it is because of the country in which I live at this moment.
The politics of our times has taken a toll on me and probably every other living American. The deep divisions in our society polarize both friends and enemies and the camps are irreconcilable. I don’t know if there is any way for this to change. It doesn’t matter on which side of the aisle you stand. What is undeniable is that we live in an American society where our infrastructure is crumbling. Bridges, roads, buildings and public transportation, all are in need of repair and maintenance. Nightly, over 600,000 people sleep in shelters. How many more sleep in alleys or cars, under bridges, or in parks? Almost fifty million Americans live in households where sufficient food is a problem. That includes sixteen million children. We are living in an America in a state of decay.
The immense wealth of America is used to wage wars that are not wars. We create enemies and give them immense power. We arm our friends and our foes. War is one of the largest segments of our economy, and the only one that creates its own demand. We give power to the unworthy. The unworthy reward us by working for their own interests and not ours. We are living in an America that has lost its way.
This is not the America I envisioned growing up. This is not representative of the American Dream of which we were so proud. This is not the America that the rest of the world once admired and emulated. This is no longer my home but a strange and foreign land.
The other morning I awoke with the reggae classic “By the Rivers of Babylon” going through my head. All day long it persisted and then I realized that like the Israelites in Babylon, we too are prisoners. We are held captive by passing years, decay, corruption and accumulating despair of America. As the despair grows, it changes the world around us until it is a foreign place. We are in Babylon, captives.
How then can we sing those songs of our youth, our songs of Zion?
As always, there is a story that goes with this post. It is rare that I am introduced to Bible verses in songs, but the Psalm cited at the top of this post is an exception. Years ago, I worked with a voice talent in Los Angeles named Roger Steffens. Roger was also host of a famous radio show called “Reggae Beat” on KCRW. In those years I knew almost nothing about reggae or its religious underpinnings but in the three or four times I worked with Roger, he always talked to me about the music and where it came from. I knew Bob Marley from “Redemption Song” but little else. In fact I only heard about “Redemption Song” because of the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cover on the album “Somewhere in Africa”. Roger was aghast at my ignorance and intoned that “Reggae is more than Bob Marley.”
One of the songs he introduced me to was “By the Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians, recorded in 1970 that opened my eyes to the Rastafarian world and to one of the most moving verses of the Bible for me.