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The Bible in Popular Music

Biblical Quotes and References Inspire Songs

Boney M: The Rivers of Babylon - Brian Marks
While inspiration comes in many guises, both Christian and secular songwriters have always drawn deep from the well of Biblical imagery. They are still doing it.

In paintings, novels, short stories and theatre, the Holy Bible has been a standard and long-lasting source of ideas, human stories and world-truths . The pop music industry is at it, and always has been.

“The Rivers of Babylon”, the Boney M hit of 1978 is written out of Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion”. It is about the sadness of the Israelites asked to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land; a plaintive song of the exile.

There Is a Season

The Byrds had a folk-rock hit with “Turn Turn Turn (There Is a Season)” with lyrics taken almost verbatim from the book of Ecclesiastes 3:1. There is a time for laughing, crying, healing, killing. It is still used as a peace anthem.

“The toe bone connected to the heel bone. The heel bone connected to the foot bone. The foot bone connected to the leg bone. The leg bone connected to the knee bone…” and so on, is part of a traditional spiritual song “Dem Dry Bones”, written a hundred years ago and allegedly used to teach children anatomy in a fun way. The lyrics are based on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, 37: 1-14, when he visited the Valley of Dry Bones and brought them alive on the command of God. “Ezekiel cried, “Dem dry bones!” “Oh, hear the word of the Lord.”

“Whenever God Shines His Light” a chart hit in 1989, dueting with Cliff Richard, plus “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?” are just two representative examples from the long, mystical/spiritual journey Van Morrison has made. Fellow Irishman Bono of U2 is credited with a huge catalogue of songs inspired by the Bible.

From the album “Boy” comes “I Will Follow”: “If you walk away, walk away I will follow” (Ruth 1:16). The album “October” has seven Biblically-inspired songs, including “Fire”, “The sun is burning black … the moon is running red … the stars are falling down”, (Revelation 6, 12-13); “Tomorrow”, “Who tore the curtain? Who was it for?”, (Matthew 27:51); and “With a Shout”, “God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.” (Psalm 47:5). There are many more songs inspired by the bible.

The Two Bobs

Bobs Dylan and Marley have used religious imagery. Dylan went through a born-again Christian phase in the late 1970s, and released two albums of Christian gospel music, “Slow Train Coming” (1979) and “Saved” (1980). During this period he refused to sing his secular songs on stage, and that was naturally unpopular with some fans.

Jamaican reggae master Bob Marley was a key member of the Rastafari movement taking the music from the slums to the world stage. He was in the Tribe of Joseph, as each month of birth matched a tribe from the Bible, and his was February.

He sang and produced literally dozens of Bible-based songs from “Adam And Eve”, “Blackman Redemption”, “Cry To Me”, “Exodus”, “Give Thanks And Praise”, “Judge Not”, “One Love/People Get Ready”, “Stiff Necked Fools”, “Time Will Tell”, “Wisdom” and “Zion Train”. “Stand Up For Your Rights” is both a political and a religious song. Rumours persist that he may have rejected Rastafarianism and embraced Christianity before he died.

Other Bible Using Singers

Jewish-Canadian Leonard Cohen draws frequently on old testament references, and his classic “Hallelujah”. ”Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the Lord”. This is directly from the psalmist King David’s temptation and subsequent sinning with Bathsheba, another man’s wife.

Sometimes references can be obscure, but many are blatant. For instance, “12 Days of Christmas” by Straight No Chaser; “Babylon’s Burning” by W.A.S.P.; “Bible Song” by Sara Evans; Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)”: “Crystal Blue Persuasion” from Tommy James and The Shondells; “Every Goliath Has Its David” recorded by The Boy Least Likely To; “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” from Patti Smith and Johnny Cash’s “I Corinthians, 15:55”.

The artists go on, from Echo and the Bunnymen to Rush, and from Genesis to Eric Burden. Others are more controversial: “Leviticus: Faggot” by Me’Shell Ndegeocello; and “Little Horn” by Marilyn Manson. Heavy metal has a go in “The Four Horsemen” (Metallica) and the Broken Family Band unashamedly sing of “Walking Back To Jesus Parts I, II & III”.

It’s difficult not to feel that there is much more lyrical mileage in the Book yet to serve writers and singers for generations to come.

First published on Suite 101, 26 March 2010.

Photo: Boney M: The Rivers of Babylon – Brian Marks

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