May 3, 2006

The Meaning(s) of Bob Marley's Songs

Recently, I have been getting many queries about the meaning(s) of Bob Marley’s songs. Or should I say the meaning(s) behind Bob Marley’s songs?

First, check the label at the bottom of the page, Bob Marley, to see the posts that I've written. 

I've also offered a breakdown of many of his songs at the end of the essay, “Bob Marley and the Seven Chakras.”

You can also check these books that I use as references:

Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley by Timothy White
Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius by Kwame Dawes
The Complete Guide to the Music of Bob Marley by Ian McCann
and Bob Marley by Stephen Davis

Of course, Bob Marley's official site ( has a complete index of the songs and the inspiration behind the songs.

Here are a few samples:

"One Love/People Get Ready" expresses the Rastfari credo, "One God, One Aim, One Destiny" which was inspired by Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. The song calls for peace and harmony through helping others, "Have pity on those who chances grow thinner," and also comes with a warning, 'There ain't no hiding place from the father of Creation."

"No Woman, Nuh Cry," is moving love song to the wives/mothers/sisters for all the sorrows they bear. In this song, Bob recalls the days spent in "a government yard in Trench Town," and "observing the hypocrites/As they would mingle with the good people we meet." In many of his songs, Bob has harsh words for hypocrites, people who say one thing and act in another way--the exact opposite of their words.

Trench Town was and is a violent place in Kingston. It's Jamaica's South Central. So Bob wasn't kidding when he sang, "Good friends we have, good friends we've lost, along the way." Yet because of his faith he can comfort his woman: "In this great future you can't forget your past/ So dry your tears I say/ No woman, no cry/No woman, no cry/Little Darling, please don't shed no tears/No woman, no cry."

In the next verse, Bob reminisces about the simple pleasures that despite the abject poverty of Trench Town bring back fond memories:

And then Georgie would make the fire light
Log wood burning through the night.
Then we would cook corn meal porridge,
Of which I'll share with you.

This song has one of my favorite lines by Bob. A poor man, he doesn't have a car or money for a taxi or bus fare:

My feet is my only carriage,
So I've got to push on through
But while I'm gone I say...
Everything's gonna be all right.

Part lament, part tribute, but always uplifting, "No Woman, Nuh Cry" is one of the best loved songs by Bob.

In "Buffalo Soldier," Bob shows his revolutionary side when he compares Rastafari to members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army who during the Civil War fought alongside the Union Army."

As a dreadlocked Rasta, Bob identified with the Buffalo Soldiers, which according to some legends, "Native Americans called the black cavalry troops "buffalo soldiers" because of their dark curly hair, which resembled a buffalo's coat." 

And just like the "Buffalo Soldier" who was also "stolen" from Africa and fought wars of resistance, so does Rastafari:

I'm just a buffalo soldier in the heart of America,
Stolen from Africa, brought to America,
Said he was fighting on arrival, fighting for survival;
Said he was a buffalo soldier win the war for America.

But there is also another side to Bob. In some cases, songs such as “Put it on,” “Guava Jelly,” “Stir it up” or "Lick Samba" have no more meaning other than a celebration of life and sexual prowess.

Of course, there’s also the attraction of the seductive language that’s involved in Guava Jelly”: “Come rub in my belly like a guava jelly.” Or in Stir it upwhere Bob transforms the simple act of cooking a meal into a highly charged metaphor for a sexual encounter:
I'll push the wood 
I'll blaze your fire 
Then I'll satisfy your heart's desire 
Said I'll stir it, yeah, ev'ry minute, yeah
All you got to do is keep it in, baby
Bob was an artist/entertainer who made his living by writing songs that he thought would appeal to the widest audience while still maintaining his integrity: “I'm not a preacher, but I am calling” (“Lick Samba”). To eat or not to eat. To poet or not to poet. That is the question. Dead poets don’t eat.

You have to eat and you have to write. Sense man and higher man. But do you have the courage to declare as Bob did on “So Jah Seh”: “Not one of my seed/ shall sit on the sidewalk and beg your bread.”?

We live in Babylon. What to do? This is one of the reasons why I have always admired Rastafari.

In songs like "Get up, Stand Up," the Wailers insist that we can find the solutions to our problems within ourselves:
Most people think great God will come from the sky 
Take away ev'rything, and make ev'rybody feel high 
But if you know what life is worth 
You would look for yours on earth
And now you see the light 
You stand up for your right, yeah!
The promise that was stated in “So Jah Seh” is still there, but we have to want it for ourselves: “The preaching and talking is done, we’ve got to live up.” (Survival).

So, on the one hand, Bob wrote these songs that had commercial value (Could you be Loved?), but on the other hand, he had songs such as “Rastaman Chant” on Burnin. “Rastaman Chant” doesn’t make any sense commercially, but it continues to be valued within the community.

As Christopher John Farley points out in Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley: "The reggae star Bob Marley never sold out, but he understood the importance of selling well. He came to terms with the necessity of marketing at an early age."

How do I strike a balance?
This is the dilemma that all artists confront.


I’ve listened to Bob’s songs for nearly all of my life and they have had an enormous impact on my work. So much so that the biblically inspired lyric in “Exodus,” “Set the captives free,” from Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18  has become my tagline. To put it plainly, Bob is one of my heroes.

Over the years, I’ve written many articles that have analyzed Bob’s songs. But in order to express the meaning of his work on my life in the only way I know how, I’ve written a story which I offer to you: Bob Marley and Bradford’s iPod.

I hope you will enjoy it.

PS. Bob Marley and Bradford's iPod is also available @Smashwords (Nook, iBook and most e-readers, including your computer) and Barnes and Noble.


FSJL said...

On a tangentially related theme, the reason why Jamaican cars have American trunks instead of English boots, but English bonnets instead of American hoods may have something to do with the meanings of the words not used.

Geoffrey Philp said...

I am going to use that the next time someone queries me about Benjamin, My Son and why I chose the word soccer instead of football.

I'll ask them when last they looked under hood (of their car)

Anonymous said...

I apologize if this is a naive question, but my 5 and 7 year old children have become obsessed with the music of Bob Marley and have asked what Samba is, in reference to the song Lick Samba. Before I try to explain, can you confirm?

Geoffrey Philp said...

No need to aplogize. From the Marley site, they give an explanation to "Lick Samba" and many more songs:

Tell the children it's the name of a funny dance they used to do in Jamaica. When they grow up, they'll figure it out.

That said, there are many songs that I still don't understand: "Could you be Loved?" and "Midnight Ravers."
So now, I've given up on uderstanding and I groove to the one drop.

Anonymous said...

Hi Geoffrey, I just have a question. Which book would you prefer of the four you listed? I am really interested in discovering more about Bob than what is commonly known. His messages are so deep and I would love to read more about it.

Geoffrey Philp said...


I'd go with Kwame's book, Lyrical Genius.

Anonymous said...

Alright thanks a lot man, I will definitely give that book a shot. Thanks for such a quick response too.

Geoffrey Philp said...

It is I who should thank you for reading this blog and for leaving a comment.


ara133photography said...

I really enjoyed reading your interpretations of Bob's songs... I had been thinking about the meanings of some of them recently and it was really useful to read your comments. Thank you very much!!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Welcome, ara133photography!
Bob's work continue to inspire and to yield multiple meanings even as I grow older..


Matthew said...

Whats your take on, One Drop? I love this song but am not sure if i got it right.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Matthew, it's both a pun on the One drop African blood and the drumming style of Carlton Barrett.


Anonymous said...

I think midnight ravers is in reference to the book of revelation in the bible