Monday, April 30, 2007

Marley & Camus & Me

When I was 13-years old, I went to Panama City Beach for spring break with a pretty good friend and his family. While I was there, I heard some music I had never heard of before: Bob Marley.

See, I grew up here:


And that picture is hardly even photoshopped. So, as you can imagine, not very much Bob Marley in the neighborhood. I was very familiar with the Beach Boys and other bopping "oldies" music. When I got back home after spring break, I went to the music store and bought Bob Marley's greatest hits CD. I couldn't understand most of the words he was saying, but I was instantly taken by the sound. Here are the lyrics to the song that became my favorite the first time I laid ears on it:

Redemption Song

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the 'and of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation
Triumphantly.
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!
Some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill de book.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.---[Guitar break]---

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy,
'Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfil de book.

Won't you help to sing
Dese songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs -
All I ever had:
Redemption songs:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom.

Sixteen years later I remember the first time I ever heard that song. So imagine: a country-clubbing 13-year old listening to Bob Marley on his brand new deluxe Walkman CD-player as he falls asleep at night, thinking: This is my music!

Could there be anything more preposterous? "All I ever have; Redemption songs...?" Well, and a bunch of really nice clothes and as much food as I want and a new backpack and a TrapperKeeper and a front lawn like an outdoor carpet and a little league baseball team that's going to win the league and every opportunity in the world. Still, somehow, Bob Marley's music resonated in my soul... And!--this wasn't music I was telling my friends about. My parents had little or nothing to say. So I know I wasn't just listening to this music for its cool-effect. I was still a little young for that.

What to make of this? Even as I got around to understanding his words & strange use of pronouns, I obviously had no direct access to the kind of oppression he describes in this song. I didn't begin to understand about the difference between a "Redemption Song" and a "Freedom Song" until years later.

Then why would I be so immediately drawn to Marley's tune? What causes this kind of intercommunion of spirits to span the most unlikely cultural divides? Even if we leave the lyrics out of the question: why would Marley's simple guitar picking settle so deeply and comfortably in my soul?




Here's a hint, in the form of an excerpt from an essay by Albert Camus ("Helen's Exile"):
Both the historical mind and the artist seek to remake the world. But the artist, through an obligation of his very nature, recognizes limits the historical mind ignores. This is why the latter aims at tyranny while the passion of the artist is liberty. All those who struggle today for liberty are in the final analysis fighting for beauty.

Of course, for some reason, it seems less preposterous that a lyrical essay by Camus might inspire a kid like me. So maybe it's just my willingness to say yes to the great question: "Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom?" Eh... I probably give myself WAY too much credit. I'm certainly not an artist.

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