By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
(Psalm 137:1-4 NIV)
Psalm 137 has an iconic place in the musical world, in large part thanks to the reggae hit, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon,’ first recorded by the Melodians in 1970 and later popularized by Boney M. The concept of this song arose from specific Rastafarian theology, but the question ‘How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?’ has much broader implications in the contemporary world. This question is precisely what Caitlin Washburn explores in her excellent new EP, Fragile Hands.
The overarching question that this album seems to ask is ‘What does it mean to be faithful in a postmodern world?’ In some respects, we are all displaced by the world we live in and we all find ourselves locked in a desperate search for meaning which may or may not be as fruitful as we would like. Throughout the album, Washburn makes brilliant use of text and musical genre to get this point across.
The first track, ‘Here’s Hoping,’ is a bold acclamation on journeying into the unknown, complete with an upbeat melody and harmonica. Those of us who often find ourselves paralyzed by perfectionism and indecision will resonate with this song, particularly the bridge— ‘Oh but fear is one hell of a shelter. Yeah, fear is one hell of a shelter.’ There is sincere truth to these words, but equally, an acknowledgement that letting go of fear is difficult—that, in the end, all that is ‘left is a deep and dark chaotic mess of faith and hope and love.’ Letting go of the need for certainty and accepting God’s call is the way of Christian life, but it is hard, and fortunately this is something that is never sugar coated in Fragile Hands.
The album’s primary genre is folk, but it makes good use of subgenre as well. Track two, ‘Rain Dance,’ utilizes the blues, a fitting choice in relation to the intrapersonal displacement narrative of the album. The lyrics of this song express a desperate desire for renewal amidst a time of spiritual drought but end with the question, ‘Is dust and ash really so bad?’ This question, while sung with a hint of cynicism, is a valid one. It reminds us that sometimes we must lie fallow and wait for God to meet us where we are.
‘It Never Fails,’ the third track on the album, returns to some of the themes of breaking free from perfectionism expressed in ‘Here’s Hoping.’ The opening of the second verse, which also incidentally contains the album title, beautifully encapsulates this sentiment:
I’m pushed ahead by all those fragile hands I never took the strength or time to hold
while I spun straw out of my gold
Until the emptiness was too heavy a load.
The desire for our lives to fit some sort of neatly wrapped-up story ultimately ends in disappointment. We neglect relationships and forget to hold ‘fragile hands.’ We are dissatisfied when the fruits of our work do not align with our ideal. Rather, it is in letting go of perfection that we learn to love ourselves and others.
All of the album’s tracks in their own ways pose the question of how to live faithfully when it is so difficult to make meaning of our lives, but it is in track four, ‘Crossroads,’ that we first see Washburn’s foreshadowing of the use of Psalm 137. We are finally given imagery of rain— ‘The sky frowns down, the storm-clouds gather, and the heavens burst open and cry’— so long awaited, as made obvious in ‘Rain Dance.’
However, there is still a sense of spiritual emptiness, and that is where Psalm 137 comes into play. Lines such as ‘Can I find a way to breathe hope into my song?’ and ‘Will I ever find the words to sing a new song?’ ask that very question: ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ We have all felt this kind of fallibility and fear that our testimony simply will not be adequate enough, but such is the struggle of the faithful.
This notion of human fallibility continues into track five, ‘Hardest Thing of All,’ which proclaims that ‘We’re all born into boredom and fear.’ There is no lack of truth to this. Being a faithful follower of God is no less painful than being tempted by this world. This is nicely put in the lyrics, ‘The angels will wrestle and break you, while the demons caress you and take you.’
Living a faithful life requires messiness, pain and vulnerability, and sometimes, as this track puts it, boredom and fear is the enticing alternative.
The final track, ‘If I Forget Thee,’ is where we return to Psalm 137. Like ‘Rain Dance,’ it makes use of subgenre. The harmonic minor tonality of this song is uncharacteristic of American folk and rather seems to bring in something reminiscent of Sephardic music. This too would suggest an intentional use of diasporic music to perpetuate the displacement narrative of the album.
The opening words quote Psalm 137 almost verbatim. ‘We hung our harps on the willow tree, sat down beside the waters, and cried for the land where we were free.’ This is the exile, the spiritual displacement that Washburn portrays throughout this album; our fallibility, our predisposition to boredom and fear, and our inability to create meaning for ourselves all participate in this discombobulated and confusing existence.
Yet, with one brilliantly executed pun, Washburn infuses new meaning into this displacement narrative. ‘A trembling tongue, a withered hand, all that’s left to tell the story of how our songs were ra[i]sed in that land.’ “Ra[i]sed” suggests both “razed” and “raised,” destruction and new birth. Out of this exile, this inability to decipher meaning, comes pain, but equally resurrection. No longer bound by the chains of perfectionism, we can accept that while our testimony may be fallible, it is still acceptable to God and worth sharing.