Bob Marley wrote the song just after he had found out that he had terminal cancer. I think you can hear that in the lyrics and in the way that he sings the song, as if he wants to leave a message behind. He was only 36 years old when he wrote it, but he sounds and looks so much older here.
Redemption Song is the last song he ever recorded on the last record he ever made, but the first time he records a song that doesn’t follow the traditional reggae-beat. Instead he’s playing the song more like it’s a traditional American folk song, and he’s playing it alone without the Wailers backing him up. It’s just him andhis Ovation guitar.
This song has been covered by endless other musicians, with an unusual disparity in styles. Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer, Rihanna, the Swedish “new-age rocker” Tomas Dileva, Stewie Wonder, Yannik Noah… even Eddie Vedder and Beyonce have done a duet together. But the only version I’ve ever heard that come close to the original is performed by the late Chris Cornell, who maybe better than most others could understand Bob Marley’s feelings when he wrote it.
But what is Bob’s message then? What is it that Bob Marley wants to leave behind, as he’s now standing on the verge of eternity? My reading is that he acknowledges that life is painful, difficult, harsh, as expressed in the opening lines:
“Ol pirates yes they rob I, sold I to the merchant ship”
… but that we all can be saved if we fight against powers that are bringing us down, if we work together:
“We forward in this generation, triumphantly” (forward in = moved forward)
So it’s in essence a protest song, urging us to get up, stand up, and fight.
But in those last words he ever recorded, I also think he tells us what he wants his life to account for, what he hopes to have achieved with his music:
“All I ever had: Redemption songs. These songs of freedom, songs of freedom.”