In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs that were originally created by men but were better covered by women.
Like a lot of college students before me, I discovered Bob Marley between the ages of 18 and 22, but not in the traditional way. Instead of “understanding” the artist through pot; oversized posters of him tinted green, yellow, and red; or dreadlocks, I read his wife Rita’s autobiography, No Woman, No Cry: My Life With Bob Marley. I didn’t know too much about the Marley clan prior to this, and what I read saddened me in a lot of ways; much of the book was about Bob’s extramarital affairs and the emotional effect they had on Rita and her own talents. Even now, years away from my younger self and with a few relationships under my belt, I can’t decide whether to be disappointed in her for staying with him, or impressed by the ways in which she continued supporting the music and the Marleys, even when it meant she would have to experience constant reminders of Bob’s numerous affairs. I guess I can do both, and am especially persuaded toward the latter when it comes to Lauryn Hill’s version of “Turn Your Lights Down Low.”
Bob Marley And The Wailers originally recorded the song in 1977. Lauryn Hill sang the slow-jam for the 1999 covers album Chant Down Babylon, injecting it with a more determined sound. Though the single was credited to both artists, Hill owns it in a way Bob Marley never could. When she sings “I wanna give you some good, good lovin’,” it speaks more to an understanding of unconditional love provided by a daughter, a sister, and mother in a fierce and protective way—one that would allow for true “good lovin’” between a couple, and less to Marley’s passive and often selfish flings. And though the recorded version is enjoyable, Hill’s televised rendition from One Love: The Bob Marley All-Star Tribute continues to blow me away. At the time, Hill was dating Rohan Marley, eventual father of five of her six children and the son of Marley and Jane Hunt. Introduced by Rita Marley as “a great friend, a great sister,” and “a great daughter,” Hill takes the stage as part of a larger historical picture—created by biology and fostered by a commitment to community—and is able to let her talent shine in a way that Rita never was. But when the breakdown hits, and Hill affirms, “And when I play them, every chord is a poem / Telling the Lord how grateful I am ’cause I know her,” you can’t help but understand that in some way it comes from the sacrifices Rita has made. Hill is able to sing strong, front and center, because of the continued love and support not only that she’s given, but that she’s received, and it’s clear she’s grateful for that as well.