Babylon is Fallen: A Look at Southern Gospel’s roots

Southern Gospel finds its roots in Southern shape-note singing. The Sacred Harp singing convention tradition preserves this older stylistic form in a fashion largely unchanged from what our ancestors experienced 150 years ago. Many Southern Gospel fans are aware that the more participatory Sacred Harp tradition still exists, while many Sacred Harp fans are aware of the more performance-oriented genre of Southern Gospel that traces back to the same roots. Yet the two genres rarely cross paths.

Recently, one of the theology blogs I read covered the fact that NPR, in a rare departure from its usual fare, aired a folk group’s rendition of an old Christian hymn, “Babylon is Fallen.” The lyrics intrigued me; as I investigated further, it turns out that the song originated as a Shaker hymn in the 1810s, based on Revelation 18-20. But most of this song’s prominence comes from its position on page 117 of the Sacred Harp hymnal. 

There are quite a few renditions, mostly by singing conventions in the American South, posted on YouTube. Surprisingly, two of the best come from Cork, Ireland:

A couple more renditions come from Texas, Alabama, and Melbourne (Australia).

This particular song didn’t seem to survive the transition into the Southern Gospel genre. Oddly, it seems to be doing just fine in folk music. Three different groups have renditions on YouTube—weird, weirder, and weirdest. Let the viewer beware; the closer you get to the weirdest end of the spectrum, the more it seems that the artists have absolutely no idea of the meaning of the lyrics they sing. But it that any less odd than the fact that the performance genre—ours—that does understand the meaning has forgotten the song?

This is just another case in point demonstrating that groups looking to do a CD of old, public domain Southern Gospel songs don’t have to record the 200 songs everyone else is recording.


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12 Letters to the Editor

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  1. This is awesome! Thanks for sharing those videos.

    • You’re welcome! Are you speaking of the main two videos, or of the trio of weird/weirder/weirdest videos? 🙂 😀

  2. The two main videos, the others were a little too eclectic for my taste. The Irish version, especially, was pretty cool!

    • OK. 🙂 Yes, the Irish version was cool indeed!

      • I take my previos comment back. The weird video is actually pretty neat. Took me a while to realize they have accents, and that is what makes it sound so different.

  3. This reminds me of a song Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver did on an a cappella album in the 80s.. “Babylon’s Falling” has some of the same lyrics (the change of verb tense notwithstanding), but is out of the negro spiritual tradition.

    • The central lyric, of course, comes from Isaiah/Revalation.

    • Interesting! Is there enough of a correlation to assume causation (that the one came from the other)? If so, then I suppose we would have to make our best guesses as to whether a Shaker Hymnal in 1810 would be adapting a Spiritual, or whether it went the other way around. 🙂

      • Since the lyrics Bible-based, I don’t know if there’s necessarily a correlation between the two songs. But it’s possible. Seems like 1810 would be fairly early for a American negro spiritual, but I’m no expert on the subject.

      • If there’s a connection, I’d imagine the Shaker / Sacred Harp lyric would almost certainly have to be the original, with the spiritual being the adaptation.

  4. Daniel, thanks for the Sacred Harp shout out. As someone who participates in singing’s and conventions it’s always nice to see any kind of shape note publicity just to let people know that this type of singing is still alive and well!