Sound falls away, and my immediate surroundings are so quiet it feels life is limited to just two sounds: Boney M’s 1978 hit “By the Rivers of Babylon” playing on the radio, and the barble doves’ coos coming from somewhere in the distance. It is either 1979 or 1980. The year is fuzzy but the heat of the summer isn’t. The Boney M song itself is upbeat but it brings me no comfort, and, together, the song and the coos are eerie. Even though I am too young to fully understand the circumstances the Psalm describes, this is the moment I begin to associate the two with a sense of loss and the feeling of things falling apart around me.
I think of the twin symbols of the fears of my childhood, and the sense of uncertainty and doom, more often now—when the presidential election cycle overwhelms, when the discussion about the coronavirus pandemic reverts to talk about which group of the population is expendable, when everything converges to show the dynamics of power. With the world I know shrinking to a small space—1,500 square feet and limited trips out into the greater Washington, D.C., suburbs—I’ve been listening to “By the Rivers of Babylon” on repeat. And slowly, the song is becoming my anthem for this period of quarantine because it is at last showing me something other than the fear I’ve long associated with it. It reminds me now of our resilience and why artists continue to create even as the world falls apart around them.
Read more about Donna Hemans’ creative process here!