On the Willows There

One of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written and recorded is On the Willows from Godpsell, the musical. Take a moment to listen to the song and the words.

The song lyrics are found in Psalm 137 from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Psalm 137:1‭-‬4 ESV

The Psalm is a communal lament of the exiled people of Abraham’s ancestry in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem in their homeland. The rivers of Babylon are the Tigris and the Euphrates and their tributaries.

As I meditate on these things, I find it ironic that the region of the Tigris and Euphrates are thought to have been the location of the Garden of Eden. When the Psalm was written, the area was governed by Nebuchadnezzar II, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time, who had sieged Jerusalem, captured its inhabitants, and driven them to Babylon.

The song captures beautifully the sorrow and longing of a people who had recently lost their homes and all that was familiar to them. Not just their homes, but their way of life, their safety and security, their community, their culture, their ancestral roots, and their spiritual sanctuary – the Temple. Everything they valued most highly was lost in the exile, even their purpose and reason for living.

Jerusalem was the gem of the land God had promised to their ancient father, Abraham. Abraham had wandered from Ur, not far from Babylon, at the direction of God over one thousand miles to a “land God would show him”, a land God promised for his descendants.

Several generations after Abraham, his descendants were forced by famine to find refuge in Egypt where they were initially welcomed with open arms. They were eventually enslaved there for the ambitions of the Egyptian Pharaohs. They labored there, captives in slavery, for approximately 400 years.

Through a miraculous series of events, Moses led them out of Egypt and out of the grasp of their captors. They wandered 40 years through desert regions between the land of their former captivity and the land God promised many, many generations earlier to Abraham. God lead them by cloud during the day and by fire at night.

When they finally arrived in the land God promised so many years earlier, a land flowing with milk and honey, it was a homecoming of epic proportions. They lived and flourished there for many generations and centuries.

They were able to fend off the surrounding threats and to establish an Eden of sorts for themselves. Their safety and security that allowed them to construct a grand Temple where they could commune intimately with their God who rescued them out of slavery and delivered them to the promised land.

But all was not well in this Eden. Much like the first Eden, choices were made that ran counter to the designs and intentions for their wellbeing.

Through the Prophets, we learn that they became complacent in their comfort and abundance. They forgot the God who rescued them and delivered them into the land and gave themselves to idols. They stopped doing justice among one another, and they became as corrupt, wicked and evil as the nations that were driven out of the land before them.

This cycle of Edenic living, exile, longing, deliverance, redemption, Edenic living, exile and longing is the story of humankind. The exile is long and the yearning for Eden is great.

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CS Lewis in Song

No relatively contemporary writer or thinker has had more influence on me than CS Lewis. I read Mere Christianity as a college seeker. I read the Chronicles of Narnia also in college in a weekend, intrigued by the way his imagery grew out of and expanded the panoply of Scriptural ideas with nuance and depth.

I have read many of his books since then, including his science fiction trilogy, the allegorical Great Divorce, his autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy, and many of his books and essays with more philosophical and theological import. I still have books of his on my nightstand I have been meaning to read.

One of Lewis’s repeated themes is the so-called “argument from desire”. The “argument”, which can be reduced to a logical syllogism, is not really a strong logical argument for God, but it has strong existential appeal.

The idea appeals to the human condition and the sense in all of us that we are destined for more than what this world offers. The existentialist side of the coin is that nothing satisfies. Period. Both sides of the coin candidly recognize the frustrated desires of people that ultimately go unsatisfied.

Art Lindsley, Senior Fellow at the CS Lewis Institute, says, “[D]eep human aspirations are either pointers to something real, or else they are full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.” The desire to worship and capacity for awe are universal human feelings of which CS Lewis observes in the Problem of Pain are either “a mere twist in the human mind, corresponding to nothing objective and serving no biological function” or are an experience of some connection with the supernatural.

For a more complete treatment of the “argument from desire”, I suggest Lindsley’s article or The Argument from Desire from Boston College professor, Peter Kreeft. But all of this is, in truth, really an excuse to get to songs inspired by CS Lewis.

One of my favorite songs of all time is the CS Lewis Song by Brooke Frasier from New Zealand. The opening lines are an homage to Lewis’s argument from desire.


If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy,
I can only conclude that I was not made for here
If the flesh that I fight is at best only light and momentary,
Then of course I’ll feel nude when to where I’m destined I’m compared


Speak to me in the light of the dawn
Mercy comes with the morning
I will sigh and with all creation groan as I wait for hope to come for me

Am I lost or just less found? On the straight or on the roundabout of the wrong way?
Is this a soul that stirs in me, is it breaking free, wanting to come alive?
‘Cause my comfort would prefer for me to be numb
And avoid the impending birth of who I was born to become

Speak to me in the light of the dawn
Mercy comes with the morning
I will sigh and with all creation groan as I wait for hope to come for me


For we, we are not long here
Our time is but a breath, so we better breathe it
And I, I was made to live, I was made to love, I was made to know you
Hope is coming for me
Hope, He’s coming

Following is a video version of the song that takes a more Kafkaesque approach to the song.

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The Borderlines: A Place Called Earth

When we stand at the borderline and understand the limitations and futility of our lives, we have begun to see as God intended for us to see.

Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth
Where every son and daughter will know their worth
Where all the streets resound with thunderous joy
Oh how I long for heaven in a place called earth

Song writers have common themes and images that run through their work. Jon Forman is one of my favorite song writers because he resonates with a theme that has run through my thinking over the last decade: the transience of this life and the transcendence of the life to come.

In the song, A Place Called Earth, he focuses on the “borderlines” between the transience of our lives and the longing for transcendence. It’s an age-old theme. It’s a theme that has been the subject of some of the greatest writers in the history of world from the author of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare.

The video embedded above was a recent live performance of this song off the new EP, Departures. Linked below is the studio recording of A Place Called Earth that was written by Jon Foreman with his brother, Tim, and Lauren Daigle. I encourage you to listen to it in all of its orchestral fullness.

The hope of the Christ follower is the longing for heaven, a place where everyone knows their worth through the eyes of Jesus who will greet us face to face. We have this hope, however, this treasure, in earthen vessels. (2 Corinthians 4:7) We long for heaven in a place called earth.

Oh, the wars we haven’t won
Oh, the songs we’ve left unsung
Oh, the dreams we haven’t seen
The borderlines

Jon Foreman’s plaintive voice captures the angst of these lines perfectly. We try to notch our belts with victories, but what of all the defeats? The songs we have left unsung? The great dreams we dared to dream that we haven’t seen?

All our victories are hollow trophies at the end of our days. Memories of them begin to fade from the moment of victory. Like the entropy to which our universe is subjected (Romans 8:20), those memories will fade into utter obscurity long after we have taken our last breaths.

We see this on the borderlines. On the borderlines, where we peer out over an endless expanse yawning out into a far distant future, and beyond it into an eternity we can’t even fathom, we realize our utter insignificance…. if we can see that far.

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American History through the Eyes of Four Female, African American Banjo Players: Our Native Daughters

Songs from Our Native Daughters is American history told with dignity, grace and tenderness.

National Museum of African American History and Culture photo by Frank Schulenburg Copyright: CC BY-SA 4.0

For Black History Month 2021, I was more intentional than I normally am to listen to the voices of black people in America and to learn a little black history.


Rhiannon Giddens photo at flickr.com cropped

I have appreciated the voices of many people, including Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the musical group, Carolina Chocolate Drop. Throughout Black History Month, she posted many biographies, and I followed her daily posts during the month.


So it was that I came across a project she created with a group of female, African American banjo players that was just released to the public. Yes, all banjo players, all female and all African American.

She set out to do an album of Americana music from the perspective of black history for Smithsonian Folkways. She put out a call for banjo players, like her, but she didn’t originally intend to gather together a group of four African American female banjo players: Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah and Rhiannon Giddens.

Four black female banjo players?!

It turns out she couldn’t have scripted a better group. The result of this collaboration is captured in song by the album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, and in the form of a documentary, Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters. Their story, which is the story of their ancestors, and a story of overcoming through struggle, is a poignant one.

They met at Cypress House Studio in Breaux Bridge, LA, an old Creole cabin with “stories in the walls”. Dirk Powell, a longtime collaborator with Giddens, owns the cabin that houses the studio, and he produced the album.

They set out to reinterpret an existing canon of Americana music as part of the black narrative in the Americas, but they found their own voices and creativity in the process. The creative force of their shared history and experience led them to produce mostly original music for the album in the genre of Americana.

Part of that shared experience is the history of the minstrel banjo and slave narratives that are common to their collective ancestry. Giddens discovered her own history through her love for the banjo, which was an instrument brought to the Americas by the African slaves. Giddens commented:

“African American history is American history. It is important to know who the founding fathers were, and it’s also important to know who built the White House…. [I]it’s important to know who built the railroads; and it’s important to know the nameless people….”

Thus, Giddens found her own voice in the process of collaborating, writing and playing music for this project. In telling the African American story through Americana music, the group says the hope to prompt people to ask, “What can we do to be better as a society and as humans?”   

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A Musical Detour through the Lush Soundscape of Mongolia

We are different in the way we look, skin color, and heritage, communal and historic experiences, but our roots and our lives are intertwined.

I took a detour today from my usual paths and discovered Dulguun Bayasgalan, an indie-folk singer-songwriter from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Anyone who knows me well knows that I like exploring new music. I spend much more time listening to new music (mostly current music) then the older music of 1960’s and 1970’s that are my musical roots. I can now add new Mongolian music to my playlist.

Dulguun Bayasgalan goes by Magnolian because of another Mongolian artist with the same first name. Magnolian is a play on the words Mongolian and magnolia.

Magnolian made a debut of sorts at Mongolia’s biggest music festival in June 2015 as a solo act. Since then he released his first single, “Someday”, in September 2015, featuring his wife, Enkhjin Batjargal on vocals. In October of 2016, Magnolian played his first international showcase at Zandari Festa in South Korea. He made his North American debut at SXSW in Austin, Texas in March of 2017. He is now the second most streamed Mongolian artist on Spotify.

One of my interests in music is the roots of modern music. In that vein, let’s explore some traditional and modern Mongolian music, which would have had some influence on Magnolian, before we get to his music. I think you will see the influence, but he takes it in a much different direction. (If you are more into modern indie rock than Mongolian heavy metal, stick with me to the end.)

First, let’s listen to Chinggis Khaanii Magtaal (Ode to Chinggis Khaan) performed by Batzorig Vaanchig on top of a mountain in Bayanhongor Mongolia for full effect. He displays the “throat-singing” style of traditional Mongolian music and their heritage that is strongly influenced by Genghis Khan:

Following is a traditional Mongolian song, Toroi Bandi, that (to me) has a very modern feel to it. I’m not the only one, obviously, as one of the comments to the video is that it sounds like heavy metal before electricity.

I note the slowdown and change of pace in the middle of the song. I see the same kind of stylistic change in Magnolian’s music, leaving behind the throat signing, and sounding very much like current indie music in the United States.

But first, I want to showcase The HU, Mongolia’s most popular band making music currently. The HU fuse traditional Mongolian throat-singing and musical instruments with modern melodies and themes. You have may have heard them before, not even knowing it, in their song, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. The HU aren’t singing in Mongolian here. They created their own language for the song that was incorporated into the Stars Wars game of the same name.

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