Old but good (lyrics)

Question: Which no 1 song in twentieth century UK pop charts has the oldest lyrics?

As part of the celebrations of the 400 years of publication of the King James Bible, veteran DJ and likeable music historian Paul Gambaccini brings out a wide range of lyrics inspired by the Bible, including the example above.

Programme is listenable to for the next 4 weeks on BBC i-player at:


Answer: “Turn, turn, turn” by the Byrds, translated from the original Hebrew, from the book of Ecclesiastes, 400 years ago.

(Although “By the Rivers of Babylon” would be of similar age, as the lyrics come right out of Psalm 137.)


The programme website details it thus: “The stories, characters and text have led to a huge catalogue of songs ranging from Elvis Presley (‘Adam and Evil’), to Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (‘Joseph’ and ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’), The Byrds (Turn! Turn! Turn!), Leonard Cohen (‘Hallelujah’), and U2 (’40’ and ‘Yahweh’).

Paul talks to Tim Rice about his early schooling which laid down for him an intimate knowledge of Bible stories. One of his favourites was that of ‘Joseph’ and the musical that evolved became the foundation of the Rice/Lloyd-Webber partnership. His fascination with the stories and characters took Rice not only on to ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ but more recently to the story of King David and Saul. He talks about his continued absorption in the people within the pages of the Bible.

Diana Lipton, an Old Testament scholar, shows how many popular song treatments refresh the ancient stories by setting them in an entirely different and often contemporary context. She cites Bob Dylan’s treatment of the story of Abraham and Isaac in ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, but also finds a connection in Tom Jones’ hit ‘Delilah’. Although the only Biblical connection is the name ‘Delilah’, the blind passion of both the character in the song and Samson provokes the same disastrous outcome.

U2, with their song ’40’, took much of the lyric from Psalm 40, and rock critic Neil McCormick points to the close connection between Bono and his religious upbringing, a connection which – as in many of the songs in this programme – feeds into popular song culture.”


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