This piece is a best-selling modern pop song based on an Old Testament lament from Psalm 137. Jewish exiles weep for their beloved city Jerusalem, from which they had been torn and transported to Babylon. The verses were set to music nearly 200 years before McClean recorded it, and I first heard it. The modern version has a few differences, and is built up in layers of a single voice with a minimal, repetitive banjo accompaniment. It is very short, and the result is hauntingly beautiful. It’s adapted from the original 4-part canon by Philip Hayes of 1786.
This song reminds me that lament has always been a vital feature of Jewish and Christian worship and prayer. When we are in despair, we can cry out to God and be assured that he hears us – because, as the story of Christmas and Easter tells us, in Jesus he weeps with us.
‘Roots’ has so many meanings – family history, the place where you grew up, the community you are in now, or the culture you were once part of – which might not be the same as your current beliefs and lifestyle.
Can you ever really go back to your roots? Your childhood friends have moved on, your parents will pass away, your home town looks small, and your own ideas about life develop while the whole the world keeps changing. Even if you had some roots once, you can’t ever really find them again.
We are all lost in the universe and the universe doesn’t care. That’s existential angst for you. Alice Moreton is singing about the way we all want those roots, and our sadness at not having them. But I think she has the answer too.
There are many stories in the Bible of people who left home, migrated, sometimes as refugees or captives. The collective yearnings (spread over centuries) are summarised in this passage, Hebrews 11.13-16 where the writer says people “agreed that they were only strangers and foreigners on this earth … but they were looking forward to a better home in heaven”.
I’ve got no roots, but my home was never on the ground