I realised the other day that I have sinned. This blog has no mention of Bob Marley! Fortunately, it’s Easter and Jesus died to redeem us of our sins (or so the Christian Church would have us believe). So, by way of penitence, I have chosen Redemption Song as my Track of the Week.
Both the Spotify link (above) and the YouTube video are of the version performed with Marley’s band, the Wailers. It’s not as well known as the solo version but I like the fuller sound and the reggae beat.
Redemption Song is a protest against slavery and racial discrimination. Like all protest songs its appeal lies as much in the sentiments expressed in the lyrics as in the music itself. The first few words transport us back in time and across the oceans to Africa:
Old pirates, yes, they rob I.
Sold I to the merchant ships …
Sold into slavery, yes, but the singer remains defiant and determined to fight for justice and freedom. It’s a message, the song says, that is just as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century. It calls on us to join those fighting to make the black man the equal of the white-skinned.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
. . .
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
Redemption Song was written around 1979 when protests against apartheid in South Africa were becoming violent and racial inequality in the U.S., although illegal since the Civil Rights Act of 1968, lingered on in insidious ways. The fight was not yet over and Marley adapted the words of the early activist, Marcus Garvey, from a 1937 speech:
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds.
To a black man in the 1970s these are stirring words. The first step towards freedom from oppression, it says, is to believe you deserve to shake off the white man’s yoke, to believe you really are his equal. It’s not the poetry of Bob Dylan but there’s a passion and authenticity in those lines that resonates with civil rights supporters across the globe – and that’s nearly all of us in these enlightened days. It is that sense of historical injustice, I think, that has made Redemption Song one of Bob Marley’s most popular songs.
Musically, Redemption Song is a simple folk tune with the flavour of a spiritual. It was originally released on the Uprising album and as a single in 1980. On the album it was performed as an acoustic ballad – just Bob Marley and his guitar – with none of the reggae beat for which he is famous. The single included a rendition by the whole band, this time in reggae style, and that second version also appears on the 2001 re-release of Uprising.
A song from the Uprising album about redemption seems particularly appropriate at this Easter time when many people believe that Jesus died for us and rose again. I may not share those beliefs but I hope you will all forgive me for taking so long to mention the foremost of reggae artists, Bob Marley, and his call for political change, Redemption Song.