This article appears in our January/February Legends Issue.
What if you had the chance to leave a final message before dying? What would you say? It would have to be something that summed up everything that you stood for in life. You’d also like to inspire those you left behind.
Bob Marley essentially had that opportunity with “Redemption Song,” the last song on his final album with The Wailers, Uprising, in 1980. He died on May 11, 1981 at age 36 from complications from cancer. While there’s no indication that Marley knew for sure that the song would be his last recorded document, the contemplative mood of Uprising and the fact that he had been battling the cancer for years seems to suggest that he knew the end was near.
The fact that “Redemption Song” was such a drastic departure from his other recordings is also evidence that Marley had a fond farewell in mind. Instead of the reggae beats for which he was known, the song presents Marley alone with an acoustic guitar playing a song that would have been a good fit on Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ album.
Marley was too much a force of nature to lose his personality just because he was in a new setting. The rhythmic ingenuity that marked his career can be heard in the little instrumental breakdown between verses. His vocal also drips with idiosyncratic power, from the way he hiccups his way through some of the lines to give them some extra flavor to his brilliant phrasing of the word “triumphantly.” Other songwriters might have crammed in a few other words just to fit the meter a bit more snugly, but Marley’s choice gives that word added meaning.
“Redemption Song” begins with a story of how the narrator has been persecuted for years only to overcome it all with heavenly aid, leading to the aforementioned triumph. It was if Marley was letting his millions of fans know that he was going to be all right in his next journey, just as the line implies his own Rastafarian faith was giving him strength in what must have been a time of great pain and fear.
As the song progresses, Marley turns his gaze outward to his adoring fans and gives them some words of advice. To do this, he borrows from a speech by noted orator Marcus Garvey, whose views on uniting all those of African descent were a strong influence on Rastafarian principles. “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our mind,” he paraphrases Garvey, suggesting that those he is addressing have the means within them to break free from any figurative bonds.
Marley also suggests that technological advances pale in comparison to cosmic truths. “Have no fear for atomic energy/ ‘Cause none of them can stop the time.” Yet he’s dismayed at the deaths of the modern-day prophets (think JFK, MLK, etc.) at the hands of man, calling on his brethren to rise up to Biblical standards: “We’ve got to fulfill the book.”
These empathetic strains and social concerns, along with its campfire sing-along quality, makes “Redemption Song” attractive fodder for cover artists, especially for those facing big crowds wanting to unleash positive vibes on the throngs. That’s probably why Bob Geldof and Steven Van Zandt teamed up for an impassioned version at the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope show in New York in 1986, or why Jackson Browne chose to perform it at the Concert for the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1995.
In addition, studio cover versions of the song started popping up almost immediately after its initial release. Everyone from Stevie Wonder to Rihanna has taken a crack at it on various projects. For a truly unique take, check out the duet by Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer of The Clash produced by Rick Rubin. Hearing Cash singing the idiomatic “I” as a direct object in the first verse is a gas, and hearing those two iconoclasts coming together on such a monumental track is unforgettable.
The song has even wielded its special magic in the highest corridors of power via a rock and roll emissary. Bono is quoted in the James Henke book Marley Legend: An Illustrated History Of Bob Marley as saying, “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.’”
Yet in the chorus, it returns to a simple plea from the performer to his listeners: “Won’t you help to sing/ These songs of freedom?” Maybe he needed to ask because he knew the import of those songs. Or maybe Bob Marley knew that he wasn’t going to be around to sing them much longer himself. There is one thing that can be said for sure about “Redemption Song” though. It allowed Bob Marley to go out tri-um-phant-ly.