Writer details history behind Bob Marley classic in new book
Iconic Bob Marley song has Whitney Pier roots.
One of Bob Marley’s most famous songs had its roots in a speech given in Whitney Pier in 1937 by African-American leader Marcus Garvey.
Halifax-based writer Jon Tattrie has uncovered the history behind “Redemption Song” and much of it is the result of that speech given by Garvey, founder of the United Negro Improvement Association. Tattrie has taken this research and turned it into his latest book, “Redemption Songs: How Bob Marley’s Nova Scotia Song Lights The Way Past Racism.”
“When the UNIA halls first opened in the early 1900s, Garvey was a global star, commanding huge audiences around the world,” said Tattrie in an email interview. “In 1920, he led a gigantic parade through Harlem, New York, as the provisional president of Africa. But the U.S government jailed him for five years on bogus charges and after he was released, he struggled to get permission to enter countries and drive his UNIA forward. His career withered, his health failed, and by the mid-1930s he had fallen pretty low. But the people of Cape Breton did not forget him, nor abandon him.”
According to Tattrie, Cape Bretoners kept the UNIA dreams alive and Garvey was inspired by their loyalty.
“The mayor came out, as did several other dignitaries,” says Tattrie. “Garvey was clearly buoyed by their welcome and delivered one of the great speeches of his lifetime. ‘I shall never forget this my first appearance in Sydney and in Nova Scotia,’ he said. He spoke positively about Canada, and expressed his admiration for the African Nova Scotian community. Toward the end of a rousing talk, he said: ‘We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.’ It was the first — and only — time he used that phrase.”
Garvey’s words would later be reborn in Marley’s “Redemption Song”. The singer/songwriter was born in the same area of Jamaica as Garvey and probably studied his work. When Marley learned he was dying of cancer in the late 1970s, he turned to Garvey for inspiration for what would be his last song. Tattrie says Marley likely read Garvey’s Sydney speech in Black Man magazine, and was clearly struck by the emancipation line.
“For Marley, the solution was mental emancipation. So he wrote ‘Redemption Song’, and the focal point is a near-direct quote of Garvey’s Nova Scotia speech: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/none but ourselves can free our minds.”
Tattrie, an award-winning, multi-media freelance journalist and author, will be in Sydney on Tuesday, Feb. 21, to promote the book. He will give a talk at 3 p.m. at the Cape Breton University Library and he will be featured in the evening at 7 p.m. during Governor’s monthly book pub.
“I particularly hope that white Nova Scotians like me will embrace the book and use it as a launching point to learn about our rich and inspiring African Nova Scotian history,” says Tattrie. “I hope we will all learn a bit more about how racism works psychologically — especially how it works in white minds — and be better able to emancipate ourselves from the false and debilitating idea that humanity is divided into different races, and that it’s right to treat people differently according to that ideology.”
Tattrie says reaction to his book has been good and a real highlight occurred when he was able to present Marcus Garvey’s son, Dr. Julius Garvey, who was visiting the province, with a copy.
“In fact he delivered his Halifax talk three days after I got the books, and I was able to attend and give him a copy. It was truly amazing to have spent so much time writing about his father — and even him — and to find myself listening to a speech that was a hint of what Marcus Garvey’s talks were like.”
Author Jon Tattrie has released his latest book, “Redemption Songs: How Bob Marley’s Nova Scotia Song Lights The Way Past Racism.”