Bob Marley’s “One Love / People Get Ready” transforms Curtis Mayfield’s original song in the direction of mercy and grace for “hopeless sinners.”
“One Love” was clearly influenced by the Curtis Mayfield song “People Get Ready” (recorded with the Impressions in 1965). The way Marley quotes (and changes) the lyrics of the Mayfield song amounts to a critique of the self-righteousness of many in the church (and in the wider society).
Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready“
Mayfield’s song is about the salvation train and what it takes to get on board. The second verse says:
Open the doors and board ’em
There’s hope for all
Among those loved the most
But the next verse goes on to say:
There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own (believe me now)
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner
For there is no hiding place against the Kingdom’s Throne
“People Get Ready” is a wonderful song that functioned as an anthem in the American civil rights movement. And I have no intention of denigrating the song or the way it functioned.
Mayfield’s song makes a clear distinction between “those loved the most,” who have a place on the salvation train, and “hopeless sinners.” It claims that there’s no room for these sinners on the salvation train; they are “hopeless.”
While the song goes on to say that we should have pity on these sinners, the reason is that they will inevitably experience judgment (with “no hiding place”).
Now, I don’t deny that there is a real distinction to be made between someone who seeks love and justice and the person “who would hurt all mankind just to save his own.” Nor would Bob Marley.
The question is whether we can decide who fits into which category and so who is excluded from the salvation train. Who do we think are the “hopeless sinners”? This is especially important in our time of toxic polarization and identity politics in American society.
Marley himself had to address this sort of polarization in Jamaica, given the tradition of warring gangs, each of which was aligned with one of the two main political parties.
Bob Marley’s “One Love”
So Marley uses these key lines from “People Get Ready” in “One Love,” while changing “against the Kingdom’s Throne” to “from the Father of Creation.” Whereas “Kingdom’s Throne” suggests judgment, “the Father of Creation” suggests one who loves us.
That is why Marley prefaces these lines with his desire that the sinners be saved (“there will be no, no doom”).
In the quote below, “Armagiddyon” is Marley’s phonetic spelling of Armageddon, the symbolic place of the final battle between good and evil. Marley suggests that we should be fighting this battle now; and we should be fighting against evil (not against the sinners).
Let’s get together to fight
this Holy Armagiddyon (One Love!)
So when the Man comes
there will be no, no doom (One Song!)
Have pity on those
whose chances grows thinner
There ain’t no hiding place
from the Father of Creation
But perhaps the most profound lines of all in the song come in the first verse, where Marley challenges those who are scandalized by the radical forgiveness the gospel offers to sinners (that’s why they and “pass all their dirty remarks”).
Let them all pass all their dirty remarks (One Love!)
There is one question I’d really love to ask (One Heart!)
Is there a place for the hopeless sinner
Who has hurt all mankind
just to save his own?
Believe me: One Love . . . .
Note that Marley rephrases the statement in Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” that there is no room for these “hopeless sinners” into a question, raising the possibility of their redemption.
You can download the entire lyrics to “One Love / People Get Ready” here.
Both in his music and in his life, Marley actively sought to turn even “hopeless sinners” from their ways so they could be reconciled to God and to others.
The 1978 Peace Concert
A famous example is the 1978 Peace Concert in Kingston, Jamaica, in which Marley got Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, the leaders of the two opposing political parties in Jamaica, to join hands on stage as he prayed a blessing over them.
You can read an account of the events that led up to the concert in this 2022 article in the Jamaica Observer.
This documentary about the concert also explains the situation that led up to the concert (and the temporary reconciliation between rival political gangs; sadly, it did not last).
The actual concert footage is quite long. If you want to see the section where Bob calls up the leaders of the two political parties and pronounces a blessing on them, go to the 1-hour and 19-minute mark (this section is a little over two minutes long). Bob’s antics on stage remind me of a Pentecostal preacher calling down the power of the Spirit.
In my next post, I’ll recommend some writings that analyze the lyrics of Marley’s songs:
Kwame Dawes, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius
Dean MacNeil, The Bible and Bob Marley: Half the Story Has Never Been Told
Hugh Hodges, Soon Come: Jamaican Spirituality, Jamaican Poetics, chap. 7: “Walk Good: Bob Marley and the Oratorical Tradition”
The Subversive Spirituality of Reggae
On February 17, 2023 I gave a presentation called “The Subversive Spirituality of Reggae: ‘Resisting against the System’ in the Music of Bob Marley & the Wailers,” in Rochester, NY. It was held at the Joy Gallery. Thanks to artist and RIT professor, Luvon Sheppard, for hosting us. The presentation was sponsored by the Rochester Jamaican Organization in celebration of Reggae Month.