I have always been fascinated with the lyrics and the meaning behind particular songs. I like to believe that most songs are more than just words put to music. I like to dissect songs and try to figure out what emotions the artists were feeling and the meanings they were trying to convey. You would be surprised at the back story of some of the most popular songs in pop history. Over the years, decoding songs have become a pastime of mine. I am not alone in this regard, there are websites where fans can share their interpretations of songs. Some of the more popular websites are Song Meanings, Song Facts and Genius. Though I appreciate the information on these websites, I also try to find information from primary sources to get a complete and exact meaning of the songs. I have stumbled on some interesting and memorable back stories while researching songs in recent years. These three songs will give you and idea of what I am talking about: Jeremy by Pearl Jam, America Pie by Don McLean and What’s the Frequency Kenneth by REM (forgive me if you don’t know any of these songs, I hope to decode them in future posts). I admit that it might seem like useless information but it does give you a greater appreciation for the songs. Also, you never know when these tidbits might come in handy. You can use them as icebreakers at awkward social gatherings or as trivia to impress your friends.
As fans of music we, tend to lend our own meanings and interpretations to songs. Sometimes we humorously make up and sing our own lyrics to our favorite songs. Have you ever heard somebody singing a song and they have the lyrics totally wrong? It can be both embarrassing and funny. [25 Ridiculous Misheard Lyrics] Some of us have been in a situation like the one the Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller characters shared in the movie ‘Meet The Parents’. Remember that scene where they were discussing the lyrics to the song ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’? Yea I have been there. [Top 10 Misinterpreted Song Meanings] We always believe that our version and interpretation of song lyrics are correct and as such those encounters are normally funny. It’s easier to verify the lyrics of a song than it is to verify the meaning. Most times a quick internet search can confirm any discrepancies with song lyrics but it can be much harder to confirm the song meaning. The surest way to get the true meaning of a song would be to ask the writer/artist, but often that is not possible. We are then left with crazy interpretations and conjectures.
Which brings me to Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, for a while I wondered what was the meaning of this song. Did Marley shoot the Sheriff? Why did the Sheriff hate Marley? What about the Deputy? Who shot him? Was it a set-up? (Haha, OK I never asked those questions. But that doesn’t mean somebody out there haven’t) So I decided to get to the bottom of it. After doing some research, I came across several interpretations of the song. They ranged from the humorous to the downright crazy. Two interpretations, however, kept popping up. They didn’t seem farfetched and after some more research, I decided there could be some truth to them. I came up with a third theory after listening to a Dead Prez song that sampled a Bob Marley song and featured one of his sons. Check out the three theories below and let me know what you think in the comments section.
A song about Justice/Injustice
This interpretation is the most widely accepted. Most people believe that it’s a song about ‘justice’ or ‘fighting back’. The lyrics tell the story of a man who is being persecuted without reason and eventually kills the ‘sheriff’ in self-defense. When you consider that Bob Marley was a Rastafarian living in a politically charged country that had not yet accepted Rastafari, this interpretation seems plausible. Bob Marley himself said this about the song:
“That message a kind of diplomatic statement. You have to kinda suss things out. “I shot the sheriff” is like I shot wickedness. That’s not really a sheriff; it’s the element of wickedness. The elements of that song is people been judging you and you can’t stand it no more and you explode, you just explode.”
“I want to say ‘I Shot The Police’ but the government would have made a fuss so I said ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ instead…but it’s the same idea: justice.”
A song about Birth Control
There are also those that believe that the song was about birth control. According to Bob Marley’s then-girlfriend Esther Anderson, Bob Marley was not happy that she was taking birth control pills. The story goes: [At the time, Ms. Anderson was on birth control pills, and Mr. Marley thought the pills were sacrilege. He wanted her to have his baby. He believed their love was strong, and it was a sin to kill his seed. The doctor who prescribed those baby-killing pills became the sheriff.] We know that Bob Marley had a penchant for getting the women in his life pregnant. The fact that Miss Anderson came out of the relationship without a child might give some credence to this theory.
A song about the Internal Differences within The Wailers
The third argument is a shot in the dark, and there is not a lot of evidence to support it. Some years ago I was listening to a song titled ‘Dem Crazy’ by Dead Prez featuring Stephen Marley. The song sampled Bob Marley’s ‘Crazy Baldheads’ and Bob’s voice can be heard at the beginning and the end of the song. Well, I should say what sounds like Bob Marley’s voice. I haven’t been able to confirm if it is Bob’s voice. The apparently perturbed voice can be heard saying: “People fighting me a di more it better for me, cause yuh see when they fight me, me can go siddung and meditate of what they fighting me for and mek a song of it, how you think mi write ‘Shot the Sheriff’ and dem tune deh? Nuh through the fight weh mi a get inna mi owna group. Mi haffi shoot all the sheriff!”
It is worth noting that ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ was released in 1973, and The Wailers broke up in 1974. It is possible for a song to have more than one meaning or for a song to be dealing with more than one issue. Maybe when Bob Marley wrote this song, the internal problems with The Wailers were playing heavily on his mind. As for the suspected Marley quote, it may not be from Bob Marley, and if it is; it could have been recorded in a heated moment. What do you think?
4 comments on “Behind The Music: Did Bob Marley Shoot The Sheriff?”
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It is very probable the song actually has multiple meanings, Because of this is is possible that both explanations are correct and connected. In the 50s – 70s not only was racial injustice wide spread in America and in Jamaica it had many layers we often overlook. Police injustice and abuse was wide spread in the south and in many urban areas north and south. Also some white doctors forced or coerced minority women into birth control. (This was especially true of poor minorities and American Indians who were often sterilized without consent or knowledge.) So the line about a seed could indeed be about birth control. I would hypothesize the “sheriff” represents abusive white power, while the “deputy” represents those whites trying to live normal lives or just doing their jobs, an not trying to be abuse toward the poor or blacks. In addition the “sheriff” could represent corruption and abuse by white authority figures while the “deputy” could be normal society. In other words he will fight back against police corruption, forced birth control, and other forms of injustice in the guise of authority but does not wish to harm society overall, remember blacks were often depicted as being communist or anarchist.
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Great points. Thank you for reading and commenting.