“Babylon Is Fallen”

“Babylon Is Fallen” is not your stereotypical Shaker hymn. The text, by Richard McNemar and first published in 1813 in the Shaker hymnal Millennial Praises, is all about the fall of Empire; the words to the refrain, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen!” come from that great anti-Imperial text, the book of Revelation (18:2): “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

I remember singing this song with a group of shape-note singers at the time of Occupy Oakland’s shutdown of the Port of Oakland, and it seemed eerily appropriate: “All her merchants cry with wonder / ‘What is this that’s come to pass?’ / Murmuring like the distant thunder, / Crying out, “Alas! Alas!” Obviously, the text predates consumer capitalism; yet insofar as consumer capitalism takes on the role of Empire, this text is worth singing in the early twenty-first century.

In any case, here’s the song:

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Babylon Is Fallen PDF

This setting of the text comes from The Sacred Harp, a shape note tunebook that has maintained a living tradition in the South since the 1850s. Traditional Southern singers don’t hold back on this song, as you can hear in this Youtube video. So this is not a polite church hymn to be sung in a breathy voice. It was likely written as a camp-meeting song (come to think of it, it would have sounded good at the Port of Oakland shutdown), and it should be sung full-throated and with vigor.

Click here for permissions and more about the 50 American Sacred Songs project.

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