Hard to believe it’s been 35 years today since we lost the amazing Bob Marley. I didn’t know much about Bob until years after his passing, but before the 80s were done, I made sure he had a spot in my record collection. And, he’s still there.
Released in the Summer of 1980, Bob’s 12th album UPRISING was the last studio album he & The Wailers put out while he was still alive. From that album is the incredible “Redemption Song,” which he wrote in 1979, around the time he was diagnosed with cancer. According to his widow, Rita Marley, “he was already secretly in a lot of pain and dealt with his own mortality, a feature that is clearly apparent in the album, particularly in this song.”
But, for many months, the cancer didn’t stop Bob from touring in support of UPRISING. He and his band had played to 100,000 people in Milan, Italy, and then they toured America, including two shows at Madison Square Garden. Bob’s last performance was at the former Stanley Theater (now The Benedum Center For The Performing Arts), in Pittsburgh, PA, on September, 23, 1980.
While a full band recording of “Redemption Song” exists and appears on the 2001 remastered edition of UPRISING, the gorgeous original version of “Redemption Song” was just Bob and his acoustic guitar.
“Won’t you help to sing / These songs of freedom? / ‘Cause all I ever have / Redemption songs, Redemption songs.”
U2’s Bono once said, “I carried Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ to every meeting I had with a politician, prime minister, or president. It was for me a prophetic utterance or as Bob would say ‘the small ax that could fell the big tree.’ The song reminded me that freedom always comes with a cost, but for those who would prepare to pay it, maybe ‘emancipation from mental slavery’ would be our reward.”
Mutabaruka, a Jamaican musician, dub poet, actor and broadcaster, who put out 14 albums between 1982 and 2009, chose “Redemption Song” in 2009 as the most influential recording in Jamaican music history.
“Redemption Song” is one of the most-beloved songs of all time, and in ROLLING STONE’s 2004 list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, it was ranked at No. 66. It has been covered by the likes of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Stevie Wonder, The Chieftains (with Bob’s son, Ziggy Marley), Afropop artist Angélique Kidjo, and prolly the two most famous versions, by The Clash’s Joe Strummer in 2002 before his death, and a version featuring both Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash (and both songs were produced by Rick Rubin). In Paris in December 2015, Madonna, along with her son, David, did a live cover version of “Redemption Song” to pay tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks there a few weeks before.
I know “Redemption Song” is prolly most-referred to as a protest song, but for me, it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard – a song not just of freedom, but encompassing hope, peace, faith, love and yes, redemption. Bob would have been 71 this year. Sometimes I catch myself wondering what life would have been like if cancer hadn’t taken him at such a young age. Would their be so much anger and hate and violence and negativity around the world if he were still here? Hard to say, but I’m betting my record collection and yours that the world would be a better place today if he was here to have a say in it.
But, since the DeLorean can’t help me out this time, for now, all I’ll ever have (of which I’m grateful) is this “Redemption Song,” and many more. (I just had an image of Bob and Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash and David Bowie and Prince and The Ramones sitting around a huge campfire upstairs, while Bob plays his guitar and sings this song. Wow…) Thank you Bob. Miss you, wherever you are…