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Songs of '74: 'No Woman, No Cry', Bob Marley's Sublime Celebration of the Human Spirit

'No Woman, No Cry' would be Marley's breakthrough hit – and also have a powerful impact long beyond his lifetime.

bob marley no woman no cry
Source: Philippe Gras / Le Pictorium/Newscom/The Mega Agency

'No Woman, No Cry' is a song about strength and compassion in the face of hardship and poverty.

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“No Woman, No Cry” is not only one of Bob Marley’s most famous songs, it is also one of his most intriguing. It represents a rare occasion where the version most people know and love is a live recording… and in which a great number of people who bought the single will have misinterpreted its title completely. It also contains a hidden, but very powerful, legacy beyond its musical impact.

“No Woman, No Cry” does not refer to the belief that the fairer sex are most often responsible for male woes – but is rather a gentle, reassuring plea to a woman: “Oh little darlin’, don’t shed no tears.”

Speaking to the NME in 2012, legendary Wailers bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett explained: “The song is about the strength in the mama of course, strength in the ladies. And we love a woman with a backbone. Something like a wishbone! They have to be like a she lion! Woman strong, you know, not depending on the man. Of course the man is there to help you, then for every successful man, there is a good woman.”

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Source: mega

'No Woman, No Cry' had its roots in Marley's Trenchtown upbringing.

It is also a celebration of the human spirit in the face of crushing poverty, hardship and loss. From the very first verse – “I remember when we used to sit in the Government Yard in Trenchtown” – to the repeated refrain, “Everything is gonna be alright”, the lyrics take us into the difficulties of life in the Trenchtown ghetto of Kingston where Marley grew up… but also offer a deeply spiritual, ultimately optimistic attitude to that hardship. “Good friends we’ve had, good friends we’ve lost,” Marley sings, “In this bright future you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears I say.”

It's no rebel song, no call to arms against injustice or inequality – but rather a heartfelt, inspirational encouragement to keep going, keep upbeat, keep pushing on through. Despite it all, Marley’s saying, everything’s gonna be alright.

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The song was first written for the 1974 album Natty Dread, on which it appears as a stripped-back affair backed by a ticking drum machine, the guitar restrained and funky and underpinned by the gentlest organ accompaniment. And although it was almost certainly penned by Marley, the official credit was to Vincent Ford, a friend of the singer’s who ran a soup kitchen in the Government Yards in Trenchtown, despite having lost his legs as a child.

While the Government Yards, as a public housing project with running water and electricity, was a step up from the shanty towns, it was still a ghetto in all-but name, and Ford’s soup kitchen represented a lifeline for many who struggled to get by.

Whether Ford also found the time to write “No Woman, No Cry”, or whether Marley gifted him the credit remains unknown (and for a while legally disputed), but either through merit or design, the royalties Ford received from the song allowed him to keep running the kitchen – and keep helping the poorest of Trenchtown – until his death in 2008, aged 68.

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Source: mega

'No Woman, No Cry' contains a hidden, but very powerful, legacy beyond its musical impact.

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While “No Woman, No Cry” was one of the standout tracks on Natty Dread, the song would evolve over the following year – and by the time Marley toured Britain in 1975 it had developed into something else entirely. Now grown to more than seven minutes, it had become slower, stronger, more confident, with the organ coming to the fore and the soulful sentiment of the lyrics expanded into a vast, glorious musical celebration across the whole band.

On a sultry July evening at the Lyceum Theatre in London, Bob Marley and the Wailers took to the stage for an ecstatic show – with the new, bolder “No Woman, No Cry” bringing the house down. That live version – cut to a little under four minutes so as to fit on a 7” single – was released on August 29, and made No. 22 in the U.K. charts. It was not only Marley’s first British chart entry, it also proved to be his breakthrough song.

In December a full album of that Lyceum show, Live, reached No. 38 in the charts, and the following three LPs, 1976’s Rastaman Vibration, 1977’s Exodus, and 1978’s Kaya, made Nos. 15, 8, and 4 in the charts respectively. Bob Marley and the Wailers’ final studio album released during his lifetime, Uprising, would peak at No. 6 in August 1980, with lead single, “Could You Be Loved” making No. 5.

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Bob Marley died on May 11, 1981, after a malignant melanoma first diagnosed in 1977 developed into a cancer that eventually spread throughout his body. He was just 36 years old.

Following his death, the live version of “No Woman, No Cry” re-entered the chart, eventually peaking at No. 8. In 2005 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and in 2011, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 37 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.

But if “No Woman, No Cry” is remembered now as the song that brought Bob Marley to the attention of the mainstream, then perhaps its real legacy lies in the small act of kindness in its songwriting credit – a gesture every bit as warm, soulful and humane as the song’s lyrics.


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