The Sympathetic Meaning Behind the Song That Keeps on Giving— “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley

The number of people who at one point in their lives said “No Woman, No Cry” was their favorite song is likely long and vast. In a way, it’s a perfect song. It came out on the 1974 studio album, Natty Dread, but is known best for the 1975 live version that was later on Bob Marley’s greatest hits album, Legend.

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But even beyond the melody, the iconic live performance, and Marley’s general musical prowess, the song is great for another, altruistic reason.

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Let’s dive into the meaning below.

The Soup Kitchen

Bob Marley wrote “No Woman, No Cry.” If not every single word, he wrote the melody and the structure of the track. Few, if any, dispute that. In fact, the only reason it’s worth bringing up is that “No Woman, No Cry” includes the songwriting credit for another writer, Vincent Ford, also known as “Tata” and “Tartar.” He was a Jamaican songwriter who was wheelchair-bound. Despite having lost his legs due to diabetes, he once saved a kid from drowning.

Ford, a legend in his country, also ran a soup kitchen, a place where Marley would hang out. The two were friends. So much so that Marley historian Roger Steffens has reported that Marley said, in a 1975 Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation interview, that he wrote “No Woman, No Cry” while tuning his guitar in Ford’s yard.

Another Marley biographer, Vivien Goldman, asked Ford in the late 1970s, “Was it you?” who wrote “No Woman, No Cry” and other songs (Ford’s name is on a handful of Marley tracks). Ford responded: “Well, what do you think?”

But while Marley went uncredited on the writing, it was for a reason. Two, actually.

The first was that he wanted Ford (and other friends and family he’d credited on certain songs) to earn royalties for the tracks. In Ford’s case, to keep the soup kitchen alive. (Ford passed away in 2008).

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Goldman wrote, “[‘No Woman, No Cry’] may very well have been a conversation that they had sitting around one night. That’s the way Bob’s creativity worked. In the end, it didn’t matter. The point is Bob wanted him to have the money.”

Record Execs

The other reason Marley didn’t put his name on important songs like “No Woman, No Cry” was because he likely wanted to avoid contractual obligations with record execs. This eventually turned into a legal battle. But in the end, Marley’s estate won and got total control of his catalog (even if his name wasn’t listed as the primary writer as in the case of “No Woman, No Cry”).

Marley signed a contract with Danny Sims and Cayman Music. Also in 1972, Bob Marley & the Wailers signed to Island Records.

The reggae icon didn’t want his music to be part of Cayman, so he put them in the names of close friends and family to avoid contractual obligations. It also, as mentioned above, helped the family and friends for years to come.

The Meaning

The meaning of the song is summed up in the title, which is also the song’s chorus. It’s a song of sympathy. Times are tough. The world can be crushing. Modernity takes no prisoners. But we have each other, the simple things.

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Sings Marley,

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

Other Versions

The ’90s band the Fugees released a cover of “No Woman, No Cry” on their 1996 album, The Score. That song replaces the lyric “in a government yard in Trench Town” with “in a government yard in Brooklyn.”

The song cemented the group’s connection to Jamaican culture.

In 2022, the song was covered by Nigerian singer, Tems for the Marvel soundtrack for the movie, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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