Trench Town, located in Jamaica's capital city of Kingston, is and has always been a tough, violent place. Yet from the crucible of the hardscrabble existence dictated by the Trench Town neighborhood has come the musical styles of rocksteady and reggae, as well as one of the world's most cherished musical voices – Bob Marley.
He was born Nesta Robert Marley on February 6, 1945, in northern Jamaica's rural Nine Miles area. At 12 years old he moved with his mother Cedella to Kingston. Eventually, the pair landed in Trench Town.
The area was originally known as Trench Pen, named for the 18th Century Irish immigrant Daniel Power Trench, who used the 400 acres of land to feed livestock. In the 1930s, Trench Pen was a squatter settlement inhabited by the increasing numbers of Jamaicans moving from the outlying rural areas into the city.
In the 1940s, the Jamaican government began developing long-term housing solutions for the growing influx of immigrants. Trench Pen then became officially known as Trench Town. It is situated in the "Kingston 12" postal code of the municipality, as referenced in the song.
Trench Town was a rough place packed with too many people from the moment Bob and his mother arrived. The architectural style of the housing was known as "knog" construction, which consisted of timber-framed buildings whose walls were filled with brick and rubble and then covered over with wire mesh. These simple houses were crammed tightly together into government "yards" that shared communal water and bathroom facilities.
Every day was a fight for survival. Before he became known for his musical talent, Marley earned notoriety for his skill in street fighting. The young man's scrapping prowess earned him the nickname Tuff Gong, which would later become the name of the record label he formed with the Wailers.
As solace against the harsh challenges of Trench Town, many of the inhabitants turned to music. Marley's "Trenchtown Rock" is an ode to music's power to lift the human spirit. "One good thing about music," he sings, "when it hits, you feel no pain. So hit me with music. Brutalize me with music."
"Trenchtown Rock" praises the power of music in general. Marley is also autobiographical and historical in its recounting of that power in the ghetto of Trench Town specifically. "Trench town rock, give the slum a try," he invites, before assuring us that though it may be a slum, through the music he "would never let the children cry."
Marley began performing "Trenchtown Rock" in 1971, but the tune was not recorded on an album until 1975 with Bob Marley and the Wailers: Live!
The performance immortalized in that album took place in London's Lyceum Ballroom as one of the closing shows in the Natty Dread tour. The album is still considered to be one of the great live recordings of all time. "No Woman, No Cry" went on to become the band's first real hit single.
Marley lived in the Culture Yard, part of Trench Town's 'U' block. Today, the Culture Yard is a protected historic landmark. Its bright, colorful buildings are maintained to create an inspirational space for modern artists who go there in hopes of bottling some of that lightning that the neighborhood's early reggae musicians discovered. Still, Trench Town remains one of the toughest intercity ghettos in Jamaica.
The sorrow of the hardship that comes with living in a place like Trench Town can still be heard in the voice of "Trenchtown Rock." The song is a celebration, a consolation, and a revelation all at the same time, sung with Marley's voice of defiant joy.
"Trenchtown Rock" is an ode to the primal importance of music in life. More than entertainment, music can be salvation, a buoy to reach out to in hard times. Music is medicine. Music is hope. Bob Marley brought those things not only to Trench Town, or even to Jamaica, but to the world. His voice still reverberates through the global airwaves to this day, and millions of fans are forever grateful that it does.Jeff Suwak
May 7, 2015
Trenchtown Rock Songfacts
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