This day—the day after solstice—in 2002 we lost the mighty Joe Strummer, former frontman for The Clash. Today’s song, by Bob Marley, is a song that Strummer recorded with his band of the early 21st century, The Mescaleros. He also recorded it with Johnny Cash, not long before the death of both (Cash died in September of 2003). The duet appears on Unearthed, a collection released posthumously in November 2003.
Marley’s version, solo on acoustic, was released on his final album Uprising; Marley died in 1981.
All of which is a way of saying that the song has a definite “late in life” feel to it, if only by association. In the case of Marley, who was already very sick by the time the album was released, it feels like a final affirmative statement, a song about dedication to a cause and about belief in the triumph of the spirit. In all the versions I mentioned, the proximity to death of the singers makes of the song a kind of last testament, “We forward in this generation / Triumphantly.”
Whether or not you see evidence of such triumph, the point of such a song is to attest to the sense of progress, to provide a rallying cry. Marley begins by describing slavery and lets the forward movement from those dark days speak for a sense of eventual emancipation. But, like Christ who was always quick to point out that the fulfillment of his talk about the “kingdom of heaven” wasn’t likely to take place in this world, nor as a political nor material advantage, Marley—borrowing from Marcus Garvey—makes a statement about the kind of incentive for change he has in mind: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds.”
The idea recalls to me both John Lennon saying “you better free your mind instead” and Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus laughing “to rid himself of his mind’s bondage.” “Mental slavery,” we could say, is a habit of mind, a way of being chained, by your own lack of knowledge or imagination, to burdensome ways of thinking, to ignorance, to unjust, uncharitable, unenlightened views. The notion of the free play of the mind, of the mind as unshackled by its own materiality, is one of the mainstays of philosophy and of some religions. (Which recalls to me my boy Rimbaud: Par l’esprit on va à Dieu! Déchirante infortune! [Through the mind we go to God! A wrenching misfortune!])
But, whether or not our minds can lift us to God and whether or not that in itself is a form of mental slavery, I’ll leave aside at the moment. Well, maybe not. Since Marley does invoke some of that sense of fulfillment when he sings: “How long shall they kill our prophets / While we stand aside and look / Some say it’s just a part of it / We’ve got to fulfill the Book.” The book here is the Bible or at least a prophetic tract. The idea being that the killing of prophets is something that happens regularly in “the Book” and so it’s almost pointless to inveigh against it as it seems to be a fulfillment of God’s plan, which “the Book” is taken to be the text of.
That kind of thinking for me, frankly, smacks of mental slavery. And what I like about a song like Marley’s, as can be found in some of the lyric utterances of Dylan or Lennon and others, is that it can support various interpretations. The intention of the song, as stated in its recurring refrain, is to invite the singing of “songs of freedom,” while the line “’Cause all I ever have / Redemption songs” makes a comparison between songs of freedom and redemption songs. They may be one and the same, or it may be that the call for freedom and the call for redemption are not always the same call.
In other words, “what profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul”? If “freedom” means you can do as you please and can ignore what must be done and can retain your vain pursuit of nothing but your individual happiness, then better to have “redemption”—a calling beyond “success in life” to, perhaps, action to a purpose or even simply to prayer or to utterance—as for instance songs—that can speak to the spirit and offer it a guide, a signpost, a banner even.
That, to many, is what Marley’s song is. A redemption song because its message is about the need for redemption, maybe even the promise of redemption. The point, within the tradition of the Spiritual or hymn, is simply to attest to that sense of need and promise, for without some sense of redemption the world is a much less valuable, much more limited place. It all goes back to suffering—and the trials of life—as having a purpose beyond the merely factual or purely utilitarian. And so Marley’s great late song is, in that sense, as much as anything a cry in the wilderness.
Long, long ago, the time of year of the winter solstice in the northwestern hemisphere became the time to celebrate the birth of Christ. The confluence is meaningful, as all sun myths must take stock of the shortest day and the longest night. Reason enough to sing a song of redemption and a song of birth.
My boy Rimbaud again: “Quand irons-nous, par-delà les grèves et les monts, saluer la naissance du travail nouveau, la sagesse nouvelle, la fuite des tyrans et des démons, la fin de la superstition, adorer—les premiers!—Noël sur la terre! [When shall we go, across the shores and mountains, to hail the birth of new labor, new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, to adore—the very first!—Christmas on earth!] How's that for redemption?
’Cause none of them-a can-a-stop-a the time