28. Bob Marley - No Woman No Cry

When it comes to Bob Marley as a musician and songwriter, it's so hard to get past all of the ancillary stuff that goes along with it.  Bob Marley has become Bob Marley©, an industry all unto himself.  The amount of t-shirts, black velvet posters and logoed bongs sold each year is staggering, considering Marley died almost thirty years ago.  The red, green and yellow color scheme isn't associated with a country anymore, it's associated with Bob Marley. He's become a symbol of a culture, a religion (Rastafari) and a musical style (reggae).  But all of this belies one simple fact:  he was an amazing songwriter and performer who deserves most of the kudos he received.

It's so easy to get caught up in everything else that you diminish what he accomplished as a musician.  He, along with Peter Tosh and others, pioneered reggae music and brought it out of Kingston, Jamaica and spread it all over the world, but that happened because of the songs he wrote, it wasn't  the reason for them.  He painted vivid pictures lyrically and married them with an infectious rhythm that became reggae.  He wasn't looking to change the world, he just did.  And the reason he did is because his songs resonated with people around the world who didn't grow up like I did.  They didn't have nice houses and supportive parents.  Ends meet was something that they aspired to, rather than something that was a bunch of steps lower down the ladder.  His music spoke to the downtrodden who wanted, against all odds, to look and move up, rather than take things as they were.

"No Woman No Cry" is the one song that speaks most to these people.  And the fact that it can speak to me as well shows the universality of its themes and the poignancy of its lyrics.  There's no one less suited to the lyrical content of this song than me, but the lyrics do speak to me.  The music, too.  Starting off as a hymn of sorts, with the strong church organ laying the foundation for a song of loss, yet also of hope that "everything's gonna be alright."  The definitive version of "No Woman No Cry" isn't the album version, but the live version that was put on Bob Marley's greatest hits album Legend.  This version has a slower rhythm to it and his vocal performance is much more soulful.  You can feel the pain and the hope in his voice throughout the song.

The rhythm of the song is deeply rooted in reggae, putting the emphasis on the first and third beats, rather than in rock/pop music where the second and fourth beats are the primary focus.  The drums merely act as the oars, slowly propelling the song forward, accented with consistent splashes from the high hat cymbal.  The bass line matches the loping pace, swinging you back and forth, reminding me of the motion of an elephant.  It's a plodding rhythm, but not with that negative connotation that "plodding" usually has.  There are enough pauses rhythmically that the guitar and vocals can add their flair throughout the song.  The guitars, especially at the end, really add to the song, giving it a sorta reggae Eric Clapton feel to it.  It's reggae in beat but pure singer/songwriter at heart.  With a normal beat and culturally appropriate lyrics, it could be a Cat Stevens or Jackson Browne song.

The lyrics, though, are what make it such a personal love letter.  He uses phrases and lyrics that don't mean much to me, growing up in suburban Los Angeles, but are tailored for his love in West Kingston, Jamaica.  Even the title, "No Woman No Cry" is misunderstood by virtually everyone.  I always assumed (never paying attention to any of the lyrics really) that it meant that if you don't have a woman in your life, you won't get the pain associated with it that would make you cry.  That sentiment couldn't be further from the actual truth.  The line, "no woman no cry" should actually be read as "no woman nuh cry."  Nuh would translate to "don't," meaning that he's telling his love not to cry and that everything's gonna be alright.  It's akin to everyone who thinks that the line, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" is Juliet asking Romeo where he is.  As I learned in high school, it's actually Juliet asking Romeo why he's Romeo.  Her family and his were sworn enemies and their love for each other was as forbidden as Puff Daddy's daughter in love with Snoop Dogg's son.  So Bob Marley has a lot in common with Shakespeare (especially the dreadlocks). 

The lyrics are Bob reminiscing about earlier times, both good and bad, telling stories to his love:

Good friends we have had, oh good friends we've lost along the way
In this bright future you can't forget your past
So dry your tears I say

The way he's arranged the lyrics give the song a conversational feel that also harkens to pure poetry.

Remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Trenchtown
And then Georgie would make the fire light
Log wood burnin' through the night
Then we would cook corn meal porridge
Of which I'll share with you

Finally, as he sings about times when he'll not be there to help dry her tears himself.  He realizes that those times will be tough for both of them, but in the end, things will be better:

My feet is my only carriage
So I've got to push on through
But while I'm gone...
Everything's gonna be alright

It becomes a mantra.  "Everything is gonna be alright."  He's assuring her without a doubt that with each other, they'll make it through anything.  It's reassuring without being pandering.  He acknowledges the struggles, but keeps hope in the future and that even though he's gone, he will return, and good times will come with him.  The pure talent it takes to marry pain with hope, loss with optimisn, absence with consolation, is so evident in Marley's heartfelt lyrics.  He's telling us all it's okay to cry, but don't dwell in it - dry your tears, because everything's gonna be alright.

(Fun Fact #420:  While doing research for this post, I just assumed the green, yellow and green color scheme was the one on the Jamaican flag that ended up being associated with Bob Marley.  The color  scheme for Jamaica, however, is green, yellow and black.  The green, yellow and red color scheme is actually the national colors of Ethiopia, the birthplace of the Rastafari movement.  When the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, visited Jamaica, they had been in a crippling drought.  During his visit, though, the skies finally opened and the rains began again.  Some attributed it to his presence and christened him as the country's messiah, a divine being, and began a religion based on his teachings, calling it by his birth name, Ras Tafari.  Selassie never claimed his messiah label and said that no one should worship him, but he did preach along the lines of his already established Orthodox Christian beliefs, and others took his teachings and build on them, adding many other practices, among them smoking LOTS of marijuana and growing dreadlocks.  Rastafari is still an established religion, with approximately one million worldwide members.)

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