This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #58: No Woman, No Cry by Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Jamaica is a small island situated in the Caribbean Sea. You can be anywhere on the island and still be close to the water. In fact, the journey by car from Montego Bay in the north to Kingston, in the south, tops out at only two and a half hours. But, on that tiny island nation there is much beauty and history. People have travelled there for centuries to trade or to seek shelter from stormy seas. Some have stayed and put down roots. In fact, Jamaica has strong, historic ties to England who, for many years, viewed Jamaica as a colony of Great Britain. British colonial architecture is not hard to find almost anywhere on the island. It is also the key to understanding why Reggae, when it was ready to be shared with the world, was first shared with the English in England by Bob Marley and the Wailers. His great hit song, “No Woman, No Cry” is more than just a song. It is a history lesson about the island he called Home, as well as, being a loving tribute to those he was surrounded by as a boy. But, in order to fully appreciate Marley’s words, we must, first, go back in time, to the mid-1800s because, without the following story, “No Woman, No Cry” really could be, “just another song”. But, it really is so much more. Here we go!
As part of the process of colonization by the British, much of the island was sold to rich landowners from the UK. One such man was named William Power Trench. He purchased several hundred acres of land that comprised, what is now, the western half of the city of Kingston. His land stretched from the edge of the Caribbean, all the way back through a lush valley. On this land, Mr. Trench raised cattle, along with owning/trading in slaves. A century later, the Trench Family transferred a large portion of their land over to the Jamaican Government. This plot of land was dubbed, “Trench Pen” and was used mainly for grazing purposes. Then, in the 1950s, the Jamaican Government opted to utilize Trench Pen for affordable housing. Consequently, a series of small housing communes were erected and the entire area became known as “Trench Town”.
It is very important to discuss how these new homes were constructed. The homes were attached together, usually in units of two, and shaped into a square or a big “U”. Thus, in most cases, you had eight homes that were all connected in a square, all facing inward toward a common courtyard. In this common courtyard were shared washroom and cooking facilities. Thus, each set of eight houses formed its own little community. In most cases, the women and children remained in the inner courtyard areas, cooking and washing and playing. The men would usually leave the common grounds and head out into the streets to find work or to become involved in criminal activities or, like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, to polish their musical skills. These communal housing projects became known as “Government Yards” because the Government made sure that each housing group had running water and proper sanitation, in exchange for a small tax/fee. So, when Bob Marley sings of spending time “in the Government Yards in Trench Town”, he is speaking of where he grew up as a boy. He is singing of Home.
It should come as no surprise that the rich did not live in Trench Town. Poverty was always a factor for everyone there. It coloured every aspect of life. One example of this involves one of the most well known characters in Trench Town (outside of the reggae stars) and that was a man named Tata Ford. Tata Ford was a writer and musician but, more importantly, he ran a food kitchen within Trench Town that helped feed those in need. He was, by no means, a wealthy man but, he cared for his community and funnelled every last penny he had into ensuring that his people were cared for as well as he could. Needless to say, Tata Ford was a popular figure among the children of Trench Town, whose bellies seemingly always growled. One such boy who always followed Tata Ford around was Bob Marley. To Bob, Tata Ford took on the role of a mentor and father figure. In fact, when Bob had grown into a randy teenage boy, it was Tata Ford who made a small bedroom available to him. It was in that small bedroom off of Tata Ford’s kitchen that Bob Marley fell in love with his future wife, Rita. It was, also, where his son, Ziggy Marley was conceived. Furthermore, in present-day, Kingston, you can tour a Museum dedicated to the history of Trench Town. One of the exhibits in this museum is the small bedroom Tata Ford set aside for Bob Marley.
As for the story of “No Woman, No Cry”, it is said to have been inspired by Tata Ford overhearing the crying of mothers in the government housing communes. Their tears flowed because they were watching their sons being slowly drawn into the gang lifestyle that promised easy money and personal power. The mothers all knew the real story of what the future held for their sons but still, when the dealers came by, whispering sweet promises into the ears of the children, who had nothing, their siren song was hard to resist. So, quite often, these mothers would lose their children to the streets. Needless to say, it was heartbreaking to watch that happen and so, the mothers would cry. Tata Ford did what he could to assuage their sorrows but, the best thing he did was to write down some of his feelings into lyrics. These lyrics were passed on to Bob Marley and his friends, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. As these young men started off on their career as Reggae singers, “No Woman, No Cry” became one of their biggest hits. One interesting note about this is that, although we know the final version of this song was written by Bob Marley, the songwriting credit for “No Woman, No Cry” reads as written by “Tata Ford”. In this way, Bob Marley was able to ensure that Tata Ford and, by extension, the people of Trench Town, would have a steady source of external income, in the form of royalties from sales of the song.
So, as you listen to this song with wiser ears, picture a young Bob Marley, sitting in his shared courtyard, eating cornmeal porridge that was prepared by his mother or one of the other mothers in his housing group or by Tata Ford, himself.
“I remember when-a we used to sit
in the government yard, in Trench Town.
And then Georgie would make the fire lights, I seh,
A log wood burnin’ through the night.
Then we would cook cornmeal porridge,
Of which I shared with you.
My feet were my only carriage
And so, I’ve got to push on through….”
There may have been little in the way of privacy in those communal government housing projects but, with the right mix of people, there was a great sense of community. It was this love for each other that prompted Bob Marley to travel to England, spreading the Gospel of Reggae to the great masses, helping boost album sales and thus, income levels for his people back home. As he promised, “Everything’s gonna be alright! Everything’s gonna be alright! No, no woman, no woman, no cry.”
So, without further delay, here is the gorgeous live version of Bob Marley’s ode to his homeland and the people of Trench Town, “No Woman, No Cry”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Bob Marley and the Wailers, can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Trench Town Cultural Museum can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting the east music from all over the world. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.