The Origin of Song: The Wailers and “Get Up Stand Up”

Music Features

“How long must I protest the same thing?” asked Bob Marley in 1978 about the song he and Peter Tosh made famous with the Wailers. “I sing ‘Get Up Stand Up’, and up till now, people don’t get up,” he said, according to Bob Marley…In His Own Words. “So must I still sing ‘Get Up Stand Up’?…I want people to live big and have enough.”

As the opening statement on the Wailers’ 1973 album Burnin’, “Get Up Stand Up” would become not only a signature song for its writers, it would go on to endure as an international human rights anthem. The song has survived versions as diverse as mellow jazz to ear-splitting metal; it’s a standard by any measure, though the fact that it still needs to be performed at all speaks to the persistence of oppression and human rights violations in all forms throughout the world.

Drawing from their troubled island’s political strife and its musical traditions, and combined with plain-spoken language that transcends time and space, Marley and Tosh built their track on a bedrock of groove and a strong lyrical statement of fact: Unalienable rights are not reserved for a special class or for those who wait patiently for greener pastures; rather, all human life under the sun is of equal value, right here and right now. At once a cry to rally and a call for prayer, “Get Up Stand Up” still remains an all-purpose change anthem, nearly 40 years after it was first sung.

With music that just may’ve been inspired by the 1971 hit “Slippin’ Into Darkness” by War (think of the melody that matches the words “get up stand up” and plug-in the riff to Slippin’ Into Darkness
and you get the drift), a story circulates that Marley had befriended the members of War and dug their track, promising to write something with them in mind (not that they needed help with their rocksteady, soul-inspired hits). There are also a couple of lines (“You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time”) that come straight out of the Abe Lincoln quote book (also noted in Bob Dylan’s “Talking World War III Blues”). But that’s just a bit of what went into the Wailers’ best-known song.

“That song say man can live,” said Bob Marley in 1975. By then the Wailers had been performing the song for a couple of years. The Wailers first cut “Get Up Stand Up” in 1973 at Harry J Studio in Kingston, Jamaica. Produced by Chris Blackwell, “Get Up Stand Up” was also released as an Island Records single with Marley on lead and harmony, Tosh on piano, organ, guitar, and vocals and Bunny Wailer on congas, bongos, and vocals. Aston “Family Man” Barrett played bass; Carlton Barrett, drums; Earl Lindo, keyboards and Alvin “Secco” Patterson, percussion. While passing through San Francisco in 1973, the band cut a version at the Record Plant and the song ended up in heavy rotation on KSAN, a trendsetting FM radio station whose enthusiasm for Wailers music contributed toward the band making an impression beyond the Bay Area.

Though Burnin’ was the last album recorded by the original Wailers line-up, “Get Up Stand Up” would remain an important song in the repertoire of its three principle founders. Tosh, Marley and Wailer all remained in solidarity as hardcore advocates of the reggae music vision, with an eye on achieving states of higher consciousness. They continued to perform the song, particularly in the mid-’70s as Jamaica exploded in turmoil, its opposing political parties engaged in an open war for power.

In 1977, Tosh recorded “Get Up Stand Up” for his album, Equal Rights, the entire project conceived to relieve and champion the suffering population of the world, particularly in Apartheid-era South Africa and throughout the African diaspora. Reissued earlier this summer, the two-disc set features two versions of “Get Up Stand Up,” both credited to Tosh: The studio original, and an alternate take deemed too controversial for airplay because it included the n-word and profanity. “Not everyone realizes he wrote the song,” Tosh’s youngest daughter Niambe McIntosh told Crawdaddy! last month. “It was actually him who originated the song. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for a lot of the songs he wrote.”

In 1977 Bunny Wailer also cut the song (with Tosh sitting in) for his solo album, Protest. And Marley of course performed it as part of his grand finale, a three song trilogy (alongside “War” and “Exodus”) that never failed to light up the encores of his late-period shows. In 1978, when Tosh was on tour with the Rolling Stones, he and Mick Jagger hit the town in L.A. and caught Marley’s set; the night ended with Tosh spontaneously jumping in for a chorus of “Get Up Stand Up,” while Jagger waited in the wings—or so the story goes.

In recognition of his ability to unite through music, in 1978 Marley, who was living in exile following a 1976 attempt on his life in Jamaica, was called home to help quell the disturbances erupting in Kingston that had reached gangland proportions. At the One Love Peace concert, Marley famously brought the opposing party leaders Michael Manley (PNP) and Edward Seaga (JLP) to the stage, raising their hands together in unity. As it turned out, “Get Up Stand Up” would be the last song Bob Marley ever performed live on stage; it is preserved as part of the Live at the Stanley Theater in 1980 set, released this year.

Since that time, “Get Up Stand Up” has been recorded by the Wailers’ reggae brethren, Toots and the Maytals, dancehall artist Shaggy, Marley progeny Ziggy, and Tosh’s sons Andrew and Tosh-1. Dave Grusin took the edge off it in a smooth jazz rendition included on the various-artists compilation, A Twist of Marley. Singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman has taken it on through the years, as have rockers Serj Tankian, Tom Morello, Flea and Wayne Kramer, who’ve performed it in the name of justice for all: Released under the umbrella of Morello and Tankian’s Axis of Justice organization, the musicians work to bring fellow musicians, fans and grassroots political organizations together for just causes. Another tireless musician/activist, Ben Harper, has been known to perform the song live since at least 1997. His version from the One Love: The Bob Marley All Star Tribute in Jamaica in 1999 was issued in 2000; he continued to perform it, at least until 2008.

Today “Get Up Stand Up” serves as the official anthem of Amnesty International, the first name in human-rights activism. Living strong for those who are unable to defend themselves, may those of us who are able to listen freely be forever reminded of the message behind “Get Up Stand Up”: Wherever there are hungry people who need to eat, wherever injustice is being served, the Wailers’ song is there, waiting to be sung.

A contributor to Crawdaddy! since 2007, Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop.

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