I agonized over this. We’re now in the nine-day mourning period approaching Tisha B’Av. Music is not appropriate. Can we observe by listening to music of the season? Well, I decided to go with it. It’s for those who haven’t thought of observing the mourning period, to get you in the mood. There are versions of Psalm 137 (“By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept”) in Hebrew and English, from reggae, Israeli, medieval Italian baroque and American pop. Also several songs of yearning for Jerusalem, by Naomi Shemer, Meir Ariel and Paul Simon. Plus some numbers on homelessness and wandering, courtesy of Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and James Taylor. Also the English (Joan Baez) and original Yiddish (Chava Alberstein) versions of “Donna, Donna” about calves who let themselves be led like, well, lambs to the slaughter.
The first number couldn’t be anything but “Al Naharot Bavel,” By the Waters of Babylon. The words are from Psalm 137 and tell of the exiles weeping after the destruction of the First Temple on the ninth of Av, 586 BCE: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept when we remembered Zion.” This is the classic version many of us remember, performed by Basya Schechter.
The psalm has had many English renditions, but none more definitive than this one recorded in 1970 by the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians and included in the 1972 film “The Harder They Come.” There’s an interesting and powerful cover version recorded in 1978 by the German disco group Boney M. It’s also got a very interesting video that opens with imagery of a slave ship. (Note that the Melodians’ original, following its Rastafarian theme of African slaves in exile from Ethiopia, asks “how can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land,” King Alpha being the late emperor Haile Selassie whom Rastas believe to be the messiah. Boney M. changed it back to “the Lord’s song.”)
This one is a twofer: It’s a cry to heaven from exile in the first nine days of Av. It’s also a letter to Congress, dated August 1, 2011: Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home (in this World Anymore).” This is Bruce Springsteen’s version. (Woody’s own rendition is here.)
Of course, nothing says Tisha B’Av like Jerusalem, and nothing says Jerusalem like Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold). This is the original version performed by Shuli Natan at the Israel Song Festival in May 1967, a few weeks before the Six-Day War. The serendipitous timing of the war and the capture of East Jerusalem less than a month later turned this into an unofficial national anthem. Shuli Natan’s heavenly voice had a lot to do with it, too.
This next one is a dark parody, “Yerushalayim shel Barzel” (“Jerusalem of Iron, Lead and Darkness”) recorded just after the war by one of the soldiers in the brigade that captured the old city, my late friend Meir Ariel of Kibbutz Mishmarot.
This song became a huge hit in its own right and turned Meir into a star. The word of the chorus mean “Jerusalem of iron, and of lead and dark – haven’t we called all your deaths “freedom”? (Here are the lyrics, in Hebrew and English – note that the last line of the English chorus loses the full darkness of the original.) .
On the theme of Jerusalem and mourning, here is Paul Simon’s song, “Silent Eyes, Jerusalem,” from his 1973 “Still Crazy After All These Years” album (the title of the album could stand in as a Tisha B’Av message on its own). It’s an incredible song, and incredible that an artist of his high profile recorded it, given its theme.
And speaking of Paul Simon and Tisha B’Av, here’s his “Homeless,” recorded with the South African a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his “Graceland” Album. This version is live from a 1988 concert in Zimbabwe. (Here are the lyrics.)
One more on the theme of wandering homeless: James Taylor’s haunting version of the old American folk tune “Wandering” (“It looks like I’m never gonna cease my wandering”).
Here is Joan Baez’s Holocaust hymn, “Donna Donna,” an English translation of a Yiddish show tune that mocks the passivity of Jews who let themselves be slaughtered. This version is live from a concert in Paris in 1983.
And here is “Donna Donna” in the original Yiddish, sung by Chava Alberstein. If you don’t know Yiddish, listen for the completely different ambience of the Yiddish version — less mournful, more biting. It really is meant to be less a lament than a bitter social critique. The words were written by Aaron Zeitlin, music by the great Sholom Secunda for the 1941 Yiddish stage musical “Esterke.”
Finally, three more versions of “By the Rivers of Babylon.” One is a haunting round by Don McLean (“Bye Bye, Miss American Pie). The second is an up-tempo Israeli version of Hasidic origin, sung by Dikla Hakmon. The third is by the Renaissance-era Italian-Jewish composer Salamone Rossi (1570-1630) and is sung by the Hilliard Ensemble.
Here’s Dikla Hakmon’s version of “Al Naharot Bavel” (By the Rivers of Babylon, Ps. 137).
And here’s Salamone Rossi’s Al Naharot Bavel.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).