Redemption Song

quotation

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.

head and colours

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.

Tyler

Tyler - Gary

The bathroom in the Crotchety house is being upgraded. Among other things the pedestal washbasin is being replaced with a basin set into a vanity unit. Initially we thought the new vanity cabinet would completely cover the footprint of the old pedestal, hiding any ugliness on the floor. As it turns out, though, the new units are not quite deep enough for that and the cutout in the vinyl floor tiles for the pedestal would be a dark scar on the bright shiny skin of the rejuvenated bathroom.

With a sigh we suspended the work of the plumber/joiner team and called in a tiler to fit new flooring. As I added his appointment to the calendar that old UB40 track, Tyler, came to mind and the song was soon added to the list of candidates for Track of the Week. Then, the following day, another UB40 track, Food for Thought, featured on The Chain on the Radcliffe and Maconie show. “Was this the first time UB40 had been played on the RadMac show?”, I wondered, as fond memories of their vinyl LP, Signing Off, came to mind. That’s one album I never did acquire in digital form and I miss it now sometimes.

The song came to an end and one of the DJs (it’s hard to tell whether it’s Mark or Stuart speaking on the radio) mentioned that his favourite UB40 song was Tyler. In fact, he got quite carried away for a moment. Could this be a sublime coincidence? No, of course not, this was undeniable evidence of the Rock Gods’ guiding hands. It’s time for UB40’s first outing on the Crotchety Man blog.

Tyler - march

Tyler is a song about Gary Tyler, a black 16 year old high school student who was accused of murdering a white 13 year old boy in Louisiana in 1974. Gary was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1975 but the case has been widely regarded as a travesty of justice ever since the witnesses who testified against him retracted their statements shortly after the trial. Certainly, UB40 were in no doubt that there had been a terrible miscarriage of justice when they wrote Tyler in 1980.

Police gun was planted
No matching bullets
No prints on the handle, no proof to show

Tyler is a reggae track with a sombre, bluesy feel. It has that lolloping effect that comes from a strong emphasis on the weaker beats in the bar but the prominent bass strides along confidently, a stable platform for the melody carried in the vocals and saxophone. There are nice touches from an organ and electric guitar, too, lifting the song out of the reggae rut and into pop chart territory. Although only ever released on albums Tyler would have made an excellent single.

There’s a helpless anger in the lyrics. When injustice is perpetrated by the very authorities charged with administering the law what can we do?

Tyler is guilty the white judge has said so
What right do we have to say it`s not so

There’s another reason for adding Tyler to this blog, too. Gary Tyler’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1977. In spite of efforts by lawyers and human rights organisations to have his conviction overturned Tyler remained in prison until a change in the law in 2012 enabled a compromise. In return for pleading guilty to murder Tyler’s sentence was reduced to 21 years and, having already served 41 years, he was released on 30th April 2016.

Let me repeat that. Gary Tyler served 41 years in prison for a murder he probably did not commit. (An Amnesty International report from 1994 is available here.) So, do listen to UB40 playing Tyler and enjoy it but ponder on justice as you do so.

Tyler - UB40

UB40

Notes

  1. On 2nd June 2016 Food for Thought became the 5940th item on The Chain. It wasn’t the first UB40 song to feature in that series; item 3119, played on 7th August, 2012 was Tyler.
  2. There’s a Guardian article about Tyler’s release here.