Boney M.’s “Rivers of Babylon” Lyrics Meaning
The lyrical foundation of “Rivers of Babylon” is indeed Biblical in origin. They are derived from the Book of Psalms, specifically the 19th and 137th chapters.
It is Psalm 137 that is most prominently featured, specifically its first four verses. This section focuses on how the Israelites felt and what they experienced being in exile “by the rivers of Babylon”. Or stated otherwise, they were captured by the Babylonians, who carried them away to their country. And accordingly they are depressed, especially when they ‘remember Zion’, i.e. the capitol city of Jerusalem, their own hometown. Yet their oppressors demand that they sing a song, specifically an uplifting one from Zion. And such tunes tend to be religious in nature, as they are commonly intended to praise the Most High. So the writer, who is in fact one of these captive, questions how can they actually sing such a song under their current circumstances, specifically being “in a strange land”.
And that is pretty much the selfsame story which is recited in “Rivers of Babylon”, almost verbatim from Psalm 137. But as alluded to earlier, there is also an element of Psalm’s 19th chapter mixed therein. This is the line that reads “let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in Thy sight”. So viewed comprehensively, the singers have decided to sing their praise song, under captivity, at the behest of their oppressors. And the insinuation is that given the circumstances they are worried that ‘the Lord’ will not accept such an offering. But they are entreating Him to focus on the sentiment behind the tune nonetheless.
Now, we know that Boney M. themselves were not captives. Nor were The Melodians, the group that originally recorded this song back in 1970. But the original rendition of “Rivers of Babylon” was influenced by Rastafarian ideologies. And under such, the contemporary usage of the word Babylon points to the idea of a system or particular place being repressive and spiritually-corrupt. Also, Rastas have the tendency to identify themselves as being akin to the Israelites. So based on this understanding, a place like the Caribbean or the United States, where African captives were brought to and enslaved, can be viewed as Babylon. And both The Melodians and Boney M. were from the Caribbean. So if the general idea behind this song was applied to modern times, it would likely have something to do with the idea of the artists, who are the descendants of slaves, still being subject to the system which enslaved them.
Indeed it has not only been musicians of African descent from the Western Hemisphere who have covered this song. And its overall intent, outside of paying homage to the Biblical story upon which is it based, is that Babylon – a spiritually-repressive nation/system – still exists in some way, shape or form.
Success of Boney M.’s “Rivers of Babylon”
This song accomplished the very-rare feat of selling over two-million copies in the United Kingdom. And throughout the years it has remained one of the 10 best-selling songs ever in that country.
Accordingly “Rivers of Babylon” went on to top of the UK Singles Chart. And it also scored a number 1 in over 10 other nations, including South Africa, West Germany and Italy.
And as alluded to earlier, it has been certified Platinum in the United Kingdom. Another country where it replicated this feat has been in France.
“Rivers of Babylon” also marked Boney M.’s most-impressive showing in the United States, where it broke the top 40 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart as well as the Hot 100 itself.
Boney M. was a band that featured vocalists from the Caribbean. They were well-known in the 1970s and are in fact one of the most-successful musical groups in history. And “Rivers of Babylon”, one of their most-popular tracks, is actually the cover of a Rasta song which was originally released in 1970 by The Melodians. However, Boney M. removed the reggae sound from the tune, in addition to modifying some of the lyrics.
Boney M.’s rendition came out on 3 April 1978. It was the co-lead single from their third album, “Nightflight to Venus”. It shared an A-side with another of their tracks entitled “Brown Girl in the Ring”.
Boney M. also released a remix of this song when they briefly reunited in 1988, after disbanding in 1986.
Who wrote “Rivers of Babylon”?
“Rivers of Babylon” was written by the late Brent Dowe and the late Trevor McNaughton. Both songwriters were members of The Melodians.
And Boney M.’s version was produced by their long-time producer, Frank Farian.