"Redemption Song" / Bob Marley and the Wailers
Yesterday I was deep into the Specials; this morning I found myself diving deeper, down to reggae roots -- which for me means Bob Marley. Like most of my generation, my first taste of true Jamaican reggae came through the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come, where I found out about a slew of reggae artists all at one go. And right away it was clear to me that Bob Marley and the Wailers were head and shoulders above the rest (I'm glad I knew "I Shot the Sheriff" before Eric Clapton's cover). I love so many Wailers tracks -- "Is This Love", "Jammin'", "Waiting in Vain" -- but this song, man, this song is something else.
By this point in his career -- 1980's Uprising album, which would be his last --Bob Marley knew how to wrestle grandeur out of even a simple acoustic track like this. It almost seems like heresy to have a reggae song without a heavy electric bassline, but there's no bass on here, no drums, nothing but Marley's expressive voice and an acoustic guitar; the reggae beat is laid down entirely vocally, putting accents wherever the syncopation requires. The melody seems wistful, almost uncertain, but it soars exquisitely when it needs to, on "It's all I ever had" -- hanging fiercely on that unresolved chord.
Like a campfire storyteller, Marley starts off by reciting his people's slave heritage: " Old pirates, yes, they rob I / Sold I to the merchant ships, / Minutes after they took I / From the bottomless pit," his Jamaican patois proudly, almost defiantly, emphasized -- so what if this record will be sold worldwise, it represents JAMAICA, and Marley's not going to play that down, not now. Songwriting technique is less important than the message, so he's willing to go with near rhymes, or no rhymes at all in some verses, like in "But my hand was made strong / By the hand of the almighty. / We forward in this generation / Triumphantly." He sounds to me like an Old Testament prophet exhorting his tribe in the desert, even knowing his words may (probably will) fall on deaf ears.
These phrases Marley's spouting by all rights should come across as propaganda, but he enunciates them with such utter conviction, they seem dogma-free -- even lines like: "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds." It's a rallying cry that digs really deep, laying it at every listener's door -- yours and mine too. Spirituality and politics and history are all braided together, and even when Marley's voice trembles, remembering past injustice -- "How long shall they kill our prophets / While we stand aside and look?" -- he's old enough, and wise enough, to spot the hand of God at work: "Ooh! some say it's just a part of it / We've got to fulfill the book."
It took me a couple of years before I understood Marley's not looking for "redemption" in the traditional Christian sense, but something a whole lot more specific: a slave being "redeemed," bought out of slavery. With that in mind, it's incredibly moving when he sings that "these songs of freedom [are] all I ever have." Even being a worldwide music star, and more or less a Rasta prophet, Bob Marley never forgot what it felt like being a poor kid from the Trenchtown slums, with nothing but the music and passion in his heart.
Singing this, at the apex of his career -- with the cancer that killed him already raging through his body -- he has an end-of-days urgency throbbing through his voice, and it's so . . . well, we use the word "awesome" too easily these days, but this song? This song is awesome.