“By the Waters of Babylon”

This past Sunday was the tenth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. A round often attributed to William Billings, “By the Waters of Babylon,” seemed like a good tune to sing for that anniversary: healing, and appropriate. I adapted it somewhat for us Sacred Harp singers: placed it in the key of C minor; changed a few notes in the treble line (m. 11) to keep the trebles more in the range to which they’re accustomed, and to provide some forward momentum (rounds can feel pretty static) and make it feel more like a fuguing tune; lowered the bass part an octave from the original (mm. 9-12) to provide a lower foundation (again, more like a fuguing tune) and to set off the treble part in mm. 11-12; and finally added choice notes in the tenor line (mm. 5-8, 17-20) so that the altos could feel more comfortable singing the tenor line.

Purists will be horrified at these changes, but editors of tune books regularly changed tunes, altered parts, etc., so I feel it is within the bounds of the tradition. If you want the original round, take the tenor line mm. 1-12 and drop the lower choice notes in mm. 5-8. And while this tune is attributed to Billings, it probably originated as a Hebrew round, so it has already been modified by the folk process. (N.B.: The sheet music should read “attributed to William Billings”.)

I presented this at the Palo Alto singing on September 11, the tenth anniversary. The fifty-plus singers there sang it beautifully — all credit to them, and to whomever wrote the original tune. One or two people asked about it, so I’ll post a PDF of the tune here:

By the Waters of Babylon.

One final note: the tenth anniversary of 9/1 hit me harder than I expected, and I wound up being unable to sing while I was leading this.

Update 6 November 2012:

More on the origins of the tune: Since I wrote the initial post I have been able to do more research. The tune does not appear anywhere in The Complete Works of William Billings, so it is not by Billings. Don Maclean’s 1971 recording “American Pie” incorrectly attributes the tune to Billings, and many later misattributions seem to stem from this misattribution. So where does the tune come from?

The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion by LindaJo H. McKim (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, p. 177) attributes what is essentially the same tune to “traditional Jewish melody.” Similarly, Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship by John D. Witvliet, Martin Tel, and Joyce Borger (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2012, p. 899) also attributes it: “traditional Jewish melody.” Other sources simply attribute the tune to “Traditional.”

A version of the tune appeared in print as early as 1786 in The Muses Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets and Canons by Philip Hayes, on p. 105. A scan of this book is available as a public domain download from the International Music Score Library Project; here’s the relevant portion of the book:

As you can see, the first three parts of the canon are very similar to the tune I presented to the Palo Alto group. However, there are differences in the tune and the way the words fit to the tune (more melisma in the Hayes version), and there is also a fourth part to the canon. Were I to do this again, I would work from the Hayes version, since it was a tune that could have been known to the early American tunesmiths.

However, just because the tune appears in Hayes does not mean it was composed by Hayes; he could well have collected it from another source, including from a traditional Jewish source. Until I find research done by ethnomusicologists or music historians, I feel it’s best to attribute this tune to “Traditional” or “Anonymous”; or if one uses the Philip Hayes version, the attribution would be something like: “Philip Hayes’ The Muses Delight (1786).”

2 thoughts on ““By the Waters of Babylon””

  1. As far as there being a “Jewish” source to the melody/round, this is highly unlikely. Round-singing wasn’t a part of any Jewish observance and there’s no tradition that I know of that used or uses this (except briefly in some contemporary congregation). The words, however, are based on Psalm 137. So the words — not the music — do, in fact, have a “Jewish” source, albeit via the King James translation of the Bible.

  2. Rabbi Eli Mallon, thanks for the comment. I agree that a Jewish source seems highly unlikely, and attributions in hymnals are notoriously unreliable (knowing how the attributions for my own denomination’s hymnal got done makes me even more skeptical of such attributions!). And it is unfortunate that the attributions in the Presbyterian Hymnal aren’t footnoted so we could check up on this — I don’t trust anything without footnotes.

    My current thinking is to attribute this tune to “The Muses Delight, Philip Hayes, 1786″ and leave it at that. No attribution to Billings, or to “trad. Jewish,” or to Don McLean for that matter.

    You can see a bit more recent discussion at my other blog: http://danielharper.org/yauu/2012/11/another-look-at-sources-of-sacred-song/

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