Bob Marley - "I Shot the Sheriff" (1976) - All about the song

About the most iconic song in the world of reggae "I Shot the Sheriff" and, not the most common in the world of rock...

Song History: Bob Marley - "I Shot the Sheriff" (1976)

First, a few facts about the iconic song:

  • This song tells the story of a man who is being chased by the Sheriff. He shoots the Sheriff, but for some reason, he is also accused of killing the Deputy Sheriff. Marley confirmed that some parts of the song are true, but did not say which ones.
  • It was the last single released by Marley with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wyler, who went on to go solo.
  • Eric Clapton recorded a cover in 1974 (there was no Bob Marley version at the time). His version was a US #1 hit, the only #1 charting song of his career. Clapton's recording gave Marley a big boost as rock audiences now focused on Bob's work.
Bob Marley decides not to kill the "sprout"...
Bob Marley decides not to kill the "sprout"...
  • In a 2001 documentary "The Life of Bob Marley" Esther Anderson, who was Marley's girlfriend, claims she helped write the song, and that it's actually about birth control.
  • Sheriff's name in the song is John Brown. In 1963, Bob Dylan wrote a song called "John Brown". It's about a boy who goes to war and comes back badly wounded.
  • Bruce Springsteen used the name "John Brown" as the judge's name in his 1981 song "Johnny 99".
Bob Marley
Bob Marley

So what is the song about?

In a 1975 interview, Bob Marley spoke a little about the meaning of "I Shot The Sheriff".

"I Shot The Sheriff" is like I shot the Sheriff," said Bob Marley. “In fact, this is not the Sheriff, these are elements of evil. The elements of this song are people judging you and you can't take it anymore and you explode, you just explode."

According to the book Wailing Blues - "The Story of Wailers" by Bob Marley, the musician seemed to enjoy the air of mystery surrounding the song. The book describes when Marley first met Eric Clapton. Author John Masuri reports that Marley did not give Clapton a straight answer about the meaning of the song, telling him that some of the lyrics were true, but he refuses to divulge which ones.

Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton - "I Shot The Sheriff"

Whatever his original intentions, Marley and The Wailers' song about killing the Sheriff in self-defense and falsely accusing him of killing his deputy became an anthem against injustice. It was an absolute hit that drew attention to many problems. Ultimately, Bob got his way, which led to more transparency in the judiciary and in medicine. While Marley and other music journalists have stated that the song's meaning is metaphorical, recent revelations indicate that the song may be personal.

According to Esther Anderson, Marley's former girlfriend who was involved in making the documentary in 2011 Bob Marley: Making a Legendlyrics grew out of controversy over the use of «birth control». In a review article on the film by J. J. Colagrande in the magazine "Miami New Times" reported that Marley believed that the use of birth control was a sin, and "a doctor who prescribed pills to kill a child became a sheriff."

The article emphasizes that the passage is a song of particular significance: "Sheriff John Brown always hated me / What I don't know for / Every time I plant a seed / He said kill it before it grows."

Bob Marley
Bob Marley (Bob Marley)

People have often interpreted the meaning of "plant a seed" as a reference to marijuana, so this new revelation gives listeners an interesting alternative. Instead of the much-loved line where the cop tells Marley to kill his seed pots, perhaps the song is about Marley's anger at the doctor who killed the children.

Having told the world all this, the texts often have a deeper meaning. When a musician writes down the words for his music, the meaning can appear on several planes at once, which the creator does not even suspect. Sometimes lyrics have little of their original intent and turn into something meaningful to many people over the years.

Without personal confirmation from Bob Marley, we cannot blindly believe in only one version. But it was interesting to hear Esther Anderson's version of how "I Shot The Sheriff" could be about something completely different, deeper than we even suspected.
Without personal confirmation from Bob Marley, we cannot blindly believe in only one version. But it was interesting to hear Esther Anderson's version of how "I Shot The Sheriff" could be about something completely different, deeper than we even suspected.

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