Prisoners playing lyres. Assyrian, about 700-692 BC.

Gypsum wall panel relief from about 700 B.C.E., just prior to the Babylonian Exile, showing an Assyrian soldier and three captives, possibly Judeans, carrying harps in wooded terrain.

Here’s traditional chanted rendition of Psalm 137, in Hebrew (“Al Naharot Babel”) recorded in Iraq. This same website includes renditions from Algeria, Georgia, Morocco, South Yemen, and Tunisia.

Psalm 137 is the only one out of 150 biblical psalms set in a particular time and place. The vivid tableau sketched by the opening lines has lent itself to visual depictions, going back to the earliest surviving psalters and illuminated manuscripts.

Illustration from a 9th century Russian psalter

Illustration from a 10th century Russian psalter


12th century St. Albans Psalter, from England

12th century St. Albans Psalter, from England

Eadwine_psalter_-_Trinity_College_Lib_-_f.243vEadwine Psalter, 12th Century

With its strong undercurrent of nostalgia for a lost homeland, Psalm 137 was an attractive inspiration for Romantic painters and composers.


Ferdinand von Olivier, Germany (1830)


The mourning jews in exile (Psalm 137) *oil on panel *183 x 280 cm *1832

Eduard Bendemann, The mourning jews in exile
*oil on panel  *183 x 280 cm  *1832








Eugene Delacroix     France (Palais Bourbon)

Three of the most familiar modern musical settings of the song appeared within two years of each other, one from Jamaica, the other two from the United States.

Don McLean, “Waters of Babylon,” American Pie (1971)

Stephen Schwartz, “On the Willows,” Godspell (1971)

The Melodians, “Rivers of Babylon” (1969)

I was able to interview one of the original Melodians, Tony Brevett, at his home in Queens, then see him perform at a club in Brooklyn later that night. Within a year he was dead of cancer.

BrevettBrevett +

Brevett flyer

Boney Rivers

Boney M’s cover version of the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” became the best-selling version, achieving immortality in movie soundtracks from China to Khazakstan.

Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon” begins at 1’05”