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36 years after Bob Marley passed on, No Woman No Cry stirs ownership controversy

Bob Marley was not a one-hit singer. Instead, he was a consistent serial hit-making artiste of the highest order.

The entertainment industry always responds excitedly to musical hits with overwhelming rewards. Consequently in show business, the rule of the thumb is that the overall success, lifetime fame and artistic popularity of legendary singers and songwriters are often traceable to the impact they achieve with their greatest hit songs. The fame of some truly big stars could be due simply to the impact of just one phenomenal smash hit. In his own case, however, Bob Marley was not a one-hit singer. Instead, he was a consistent serial hit-making artiste of the highest order.

Both in his lifetime and in the present post humus era of his pervasive fame and all-inclusive influence, some of the greatest among the super hits responsible for Marley’s well deserved fame and popularity are One Love [1977], I Shot the Sheriff [1973], Rastaman Vibration [1976], Could you be Loved [1981], Buffalo Soldier [1983], Root Rock Reggae [1976], Waiting in Vain [1977] and Lively Up Yourself [1975]. This week, Thursday, May 11 marks the 36th year since Bob Marley passed away.

Marley was a gifted musician known to be blessed with the merit of commanding multiple hits with apparent ease. Yet, even within his copious catalogue of hit tracks, one song that stands out distinctively is No Woman No Cry [1975]. Should any interested person venture to investigate certain aspects of the background stories connected to No Woman No Cry, what would be discovered is that the value of the song goes beyond mere artistic brilliance and immense public appeal to include the practical expression of Marley’s exemplary and uncommon humanitarian disposition.

No Woman No Cry is said to be the most recorded and affectionately acclaimed song in the entire history of reggae music. Yet, especially with regards to who wrote it, a controversial but fascinating story surrounds its origination. In the main, authorship of the song is credited not to Bob Marley officially but to Vincent Ford, Marley’s bosom friend with whom he is known to have shared many fond memories and early period experiences. Born in Jamaica in 1940, Ford was five years older than Bob Marley even though they had much in common.

As a compelling and soul-satisfying dance floor ballad, No Woman No Cry became famous and popular initially through a studio recorded version released by Bob Marley & the Wailers in a 1974 production as one of the tracks in the highly rated Natty Dread album. However, in 1975 at the Lyceum in London, England, a live performance of No Woman No Cry was part of the stage set in a memorable and electrifying show unerringly recognised today as the cross over concert that finally transfigured Marley’s name and reputation from that of a Jamaican and West Indian staple to that of a worldwide household cultural item.

Since then, especially with the 1975 audio and video release of the LIVE album that made a fresh and exhilarating version of the cool song accessible to a greatly enlarged audience, the line-up of legendary acts that have covered the intoxicatingly evocative No Woman No Cry includes the reggae patriarch Jimmy Cliff, Joan Baez, Bonny M and the Fugees.

Many of the experts readily accept that there is truly no hard and fast evidence to support the loudly trumpeted claims of many Jamaican music industry historians that Ford, a Trench Town, Kingston Jamaican soup kitchen [i.e. restaurant] owner, did not in fact compose the lyrics of No Woman No Cry. Many Jamaican music industry commentators, who should know, have kept on insisting that the song was actually the product of Bob Marley’s fertile imagination.

Still, it is a well known fact that, as a teenager, Bob and Ford had grown up together in the same residential yard in a government housing project made up of pre-fabricated living quarters located in the Trench Town area of Kingston, the Jamaican capital city. No Woman No Cry is basically a nostalgic narration of the common pattern of life and existence lived by the average youth-man in the government owned tenement yards located in Trench Town, where Marley spent most of his formative years.

It is equally on record that Bob himself confirmed that the song was written in Ford’s flat in Kingston in 1974 as Ford and himself reminisced about playing together in the early days and about precious old friends, some of whom had died. These are the sentiments that resonate undeniably all through No Woman No Cry. Notwithstanding the foregoing, most of the experts still choose to focus attention on Bob Marley’s positive change of fortune when, as one of the Wailin Wailers, Chris Blackwell signed him to song writing, music production, sound recording and music publishing contracts with Island Records in 1972.

Like his similarly creative and resourceful band mates, Bob had had previous song writing contracts with other producers and music labels. More precisely, Bob Marley had been involved in earlier song creation deals with the producer, Danny Sims of Cayman Music.

Therefore, experts have pointed out that, tactically, Marley cannot be expected to have wished his new songs to be linked with Cayman. They claim that this explains why, in that era, the legend of all times deliberately put out many of his songs in the names of his wife, Rita, members of the Wailers or other close friends and associates in order to circumvent rigid song publishing restrictions. This intentional spreading out of writing credits is said to have also allowed Marley to provide lasting help to family and close friends.

If there was ever anyone who deserved lasting help and material support from Marley, that person was definitely Ford who, apart from being a childhood friend and committed admirer, was also, in adulthood, a soup kitchen owner who zealously allowed his premises to be used as a rehearsal ground by Bob Marley and his large retinue of musicians, fans and numerous hangers on.

After the release of the LIVE album in 1975, Ford was credited with three songs on Bob Marley & the Wailers’ next studio album, Rastaman Vibration [1976]. He is listed as the sole writer for the opening track, Positive Vibration, and for a song about radio playlists, Roots Rock Reggae, which would become the first chart busting song for Marley in the U.S. The credit for Crazy Baldhead, a blunt comment on non-Rastafarians, is shared by Ford with Rita Marley.

Interestingly, Vincent Ford is known to have never denied that he wrote No Woman No Cry. The circumstantial argument against his authorship of the song cannot close without mentioning that hardly have any other Bob Marley songs been credited to him. After all has been said, done and considered, one basic and inescapable fact stands out clearly. This is the overall artistic merit of No Woman No Cry as a soul-lifting song that is difficult to resist irrespective of the inconclusive debate associated with who wrote or didn’t write it.


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