It is easy to forget – and the younger generation of today probably does not even pay attention to the fact – that one of Bob Marley’s best-known songs is much more than a nice rhythm for the purposes of mellow, relaxed hip swaying. The lyrics of Marley’s “No, Woman, No Cry” reflect the concepts and concerns of the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica in the 1960s-1970s through both language and content, while the music itself is a Reggae beat typical of Marley and other Rastafarian artists like Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, and Bunny Wailer.
The words are sung in the same “I-talk” dialect that Jamaica’s Rastafarians widely adopted in the mid-1960s to differentiate their speech from the more properly English-sounding dialect habitually used on Jamaica up to that time. It deliberately drops the ‘h’ in words where it appears as the first consonant (‘ypocrites, ‘ere), shortens the ‘ing’ suffix by dropping the ‘g’ (darlin’, burnin’), adds vowels where they do not belong (‘obaserving’, ‘right-a’), butchers the proper negative verb structure (‘no cry’ instead of ‘don’t cry’) and ignores the rule of the double negative (‘don’t shed no tears’), all of which are typical elements of the Rasta talk. Frequent repetitions of single words (‘said-said’, ‘no-no’, ‘woman-woman’) or phrases (‘no, woman, no cry’, ‘everything’s gonna be all right’,) are another typical attribute of the Rasta talk, with its roots in the Christian tradition of “witnessing” or “reasoning.”
The content is also easily placed historically. Marley appears to reminisce on the time spent – probably as a political activist – in Trenchtown, the poorest neighborhood of Kingston. The ‘ypocrites’ that he is referring to could be either members of other political parties or representatives of the colonial authorities. The mention of “good friends we’ve lost” is most likely in reference to an extremely violent internal political struggle that was taking place in Trenchtown in the 1960s and 1970s, with rivaling political parties supplying their supporters with weapons. Marley likely has lost some of his friends to this struggle.
Another historical reference is in the second stanza, talking about cooking “cornmeal porridge” and then sharing it with his friends. It is a reflection of extreme poverty gripping Trenchtown at this time, with people rarely having enough to eat, not to mention other amenities of civilized life.
The main message of the song comes through in the bridge and at the end of each stanza – namely that no matter what happens to their comrades, the ones who remain in the struggle must be strong and optimistic, because the struggle ultimately will end in triumph (‘Everything’s gonna be alright!’). As such, it is a fitting ending to one of the most popular Rastafarian political hymns.