No Woman, No Cry (1975)
Bob Marley & The Wailers
The 1975 live performance (at the London Lyceum) of “No Woman, No Cry” is the version of this Marley classic that gives full expression to the American Motown/Soul and homeland African tides that wash over pure Jamaican Reggae when it is at its peak. Through “No Woman, No Cry,” Reggae became universal. It spoke to the world.
At its simplest, the song is sung by a man attempting to comfort his wife, his woman, in the face of crushing and humiliating conditions of inner city St. Andrew/Kingston, Jamaica. (He is leaving, presumably to find work.) The soulfulness of the premise of one poverty-stricken human soothing another is overwhelming in its power. The humble majesty of the oppressed shines in every note.
“No Woman, No Cry” live in London, 1975
On another level, there is a conflicting eroticism. Songs about the poor and the underdog aren’t supposed to be sexy, after all. But “No Woman, No Cry” is steamy, which gives us an entryway into the heat and weight of:
…when we used to sit, in the government yard of Trenchtown
We’ve come full circle, touching on hunger, sex and government complicity in the neglect of the most wretched.
By the way, Trenchtown (named for a one-time owner of the area named Trench) was the site of housing projects built when the sugar plantations of the island began failing and field-workers flocked into urban Jamaica beginning in the late-1950s.
Other songs strive for this tightrope balancing of political consciousness and sex, although not quite on the urgent level of Marley’s work.
Here he is performing “No Woman” live. Feel the soulful power:
Both phenomenal songs in their own rights, 1971’s “What’s Going On” and “Mercy, Mercy Me” by Marvin Gaye – the first an anti-war song, the second an ecology-consciousness piece – arise out of an erotic impulse and then embrace their respective political messages. (Conversely, both Marvin Gaye songs have a smidge of Pickapeppa Sauce, a dash of Reggae flavor.)
“No Woman, No Cry” works the other way around. The intense political passion morphs into a love song, which finally becomes erotic. The languid, elegiac lead guitar adds to the eroticism and to the sense of longing – for a good life, for a life that permits some pride.
Either way, Marley must have been listening very closely to Gaye’s songs.
The live performance’s real genius lies in its ability to paint a vivid picture of the squalor in the government yard with a single voice crying out above the din. The recording and production techniques make it feel as if we are outdoors. The background vocals seem heavenly and hellish at once. The crowd becomes a witness to injustice with their shouts and background noise.
The lyrics create a dark vision: fires burning in the midst of buildings warehousing people; the cooking of cheap porridge on the fires; the skewering of the hypocrites (pronounced ‘ypocreets in the song) who have landed the people first from Africa to work the cane fields, then shoved them off the land to shut them up in what amount to prisons. The only place to get anywhere is to walk.
And then Georgie would make the firelights
I say, logwood burnin’ through the nights, yeah
Then we would cook cornmeal porridge, say
Of which I’ll share with you, yeah
My feet is my only carriage
And so I’ve got to push on through
Oh, while I’m gone
Everything’s gonna be all right
As good as Dylan, as good as Guthrie, “No Woman, No Cry” is a liberation song of the highest order. And you can dance very, very slow to it. Gotta take genius where you find it.
- While Bob Marley actually wrote “No Woman, No Cry,” the legal “composer” credit cites Vincent Ford, who ran a soup kitchen for the poor in Kingston. Marley wanted the royalties from the song to bankroll Ford’s effort.
- The backing vocals are performed by the I-Threes, one of whom is Marley’s wife, Rita Marley. Another, Marcia Griffiths, made her version of the wedding-reception, line-dance song, The Electric Slide, hysterically popular.