Small Axe

Originally Performed ByBob Marley and The Wailers
Original AlbumBurnin' (1973)
Appears On
Music/LyricsMark Anthony Myrie (aka Buju Banton) and Donovan German
VocalsUsually instrumental
HistorianEllis Godard (Lemuria)
Last Update2013-09-18


In February 2001, less than five months into the first Phish hiatus, Trey Anastasio launched the first TAB tour with horns and debuted more than a dozen upbeat party tracks. It was a bombastic, fist-pumping series of shows, demonstrating Trey's energy beyond the constraints of Phish – and apparent comfort with his main band’s uncertain future. But the tour also included hints that a deeper struggle persisted. One of the first shows (2/24/01) opened with an instrumental version of Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Small Axe." The song was written as a declaration of secession from Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, who had monopolized the Jamaican music industry: "If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down."

Reid ran a liquor store before entering music, and Dodd (once a cricket player) is said to have tolerated Marley’s early ganja use. But substance use and intensifying politics both pulled and pushed Marley from the two. Dodd’s posh machine for rocksteady releases – including its ties to the BBC – smacked of earlier provincial, if not colonial, times. Marley, Perry, and the Wailers had become hardened Rastafari, the folks who believed that Haile Selassie (known as Ras Tafari Makonnen prior to his coronation as king of Ethiopia) was the second coming of Jesus Christ. Their pushback against domination was entering its fifth decade. National sovereignty achieved, independence in music production was next. “Small Axe” (like the rest of Burnin’, on which it appeared) was thus recorded under a new label, with former Dodd sidekick Lee “Scratch” Perry (who also produced their cover of "Makisupa Policeman", for Sharin' in the Groove.)

But what, if anything, was Trey ready to cut down? Phish had already paused. There must have been kernels of independence, as the band’s LivePhish download service and JEMP label were each only a few years away, but Phish didn’t leave Elektra until 2004. And after the breakup, both Trey’s and the band’s management shifted from a small act in Vermont (Dionysian Productions) to a big tree in Virginia (Red Light Management and MusicToday.) Maybe something was on his mind, nudging that the hiatus was not enough, that something larger remained to be slain.

Though never performed by Phish, “Small Axe” has remained a fixture in TAB sets ever since its debut, regardless of the ensemble. Live highlights include guest spots by Michael Franti (5/24/02, 5/31/02, and 10/22/02) and Radioactive (10/22/02) of Spearhead on vocals, Fishman on drums (6/16/02) and Page on keys (for the unannounced 4/11/04 Phish sit in with TAB).

Trey Anastasio Band, "Small Axe" - 10/18/12, Detroit, MI

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