I had this article that I really wanted to write. I even teased it earlier this week AND on Twitter. Today, I just can’t get myself to focus on it for some reason. So I had this waiting in the background. Apologies to everyone and hopefully I can get it going next week.

logo for the Sing Me A Story article series

There are songs that you hear one or two lines from constantly, whether they were used in numerous advertisements or, if you’re part of the time when they made such things, some compilation album used a snippet to show the songs that are on there. For me “I Shot The Sheriff” by Bob Marley And The Wailers is one of those songs. I’m not a huge reggae fan but I do like the genre for its musical quality. Still, all I knew about the song before writing this article is that he shot the sheriff in self-defense but not the deputy. Was there more to the story? Reggae isn’t exactly country when it comes to narratives.

Released for the 1973 album Burnin’, a few months before I was born actually, it’s one of those songs I’ve never heard on the radio but have heard. Eric Clapton would release his own cover a year later, but Marley wrote it and his band played it first so that’s the version I’m focusing on. It’s time for me to finally learn why he shot the sheriff and whether or not this is a reliable narrator. After all, this was still a time when certain parties were not exactly friendly to the cops and wouldn’t mind seeing them hurt or killed. Glad that neeeeeeeeever happened again. Oh yeah, there’s some interesting backstage stuff to share as well.

Let me see if I follow here. Marley’s character has a bad history with the Sheriff, Joe Brown, who gets upset whenever he plants a seed. Given Marley’s musical, if not actual, history they might have been marijuana plants, but give him credit for just destroying the seeds and plants and giving “Marley” a break. Then one day while leaving town, “Marley” sees Brown aiming at him for no reason and fires first. Now he’s accused of murdering the deputy but…not the sheriff? The song says that he’s wanted for the deputy but not the sheriff, the one he admits to shooting and claiming self defense. It’s odd, but here’s a music theory for you.

What if it was the sheriff who, for whatever reason, killed the deputy, the sheriff saw “Marley” and between their history and worrying about getting caught, thought to kill “Marley” and blame the deputy’s killing on him? Forensic evidence might have foiled that plan unless our narrator carries the same caliber gun as the cops. Alternately there was a reason Brown was aiming at him but was either going to arrest him or as the narrator believes wanted to kill him. There’s still a lot we don’t know, and the history of the song doesn’t help.

While Marley claims parts of the song are true but wouldn’t say which part, his former girlfriend claims to have the real dirt and the seed isn’t from a plant. According to her the “sheriff” was actually a doctor, as in one who gives out birth control pills. One of my sources claimed he thought the pills were a sin against God. Smoking more weed than a forest fire however was totally fine apparently. I don’t know how true it is but that’s her claim, that it came from a disagreement about having a baby. Would explain the “seed” line but I’m not convinced.

Marley also apparently claimed that he originally wanted to use “police” instead of “sheriff”, but wouldn’t the deputy you swear innocence of also be the police? The song instead, according to him, was about injustice, which some people apparently tie to racial justice. This was the early 1970s, and racism was still a major issue even after all the work to get the right to vote and get rid of “whites only” nonsense. The thing is we don’t really get a reason in the song, but it would be in keeping with something I’d expect from Marley, though I admit I’m not aware of all his music and may be sadly stereotyping the time period and genre. At any rate this feels closer to what the song would be about. It’s not like he couldn’t have found a way to discuss birth control in a song without this analog, even in 1973. Of course I missed half of that year and wasn’t paying much attention to the other half…being a baby and all.

Along these lines, apparently defenders of Ice-T and his group Body Count’s song “Cop Killer” tried to note that “I Shot The Sheriff” didn’t get nearly as much hate as the more recent song did. I am NOT posting a song with that much cursing on this site, so you’ll have to look those lyrics up yourself or take my word for it when I say there’s a big difference. “I Shot The Sheriff”‘s protagonist admits to shooting the sheriff (duh) but only in self defense, that the sheriff was going to outright murder him as he was leaving town, possibly tied to their previous run-ins. “Cop Killer” is a timelocked piece about demanding justice for various events around the time, including mentioning Rodney King and Darryl Gates by name, but it comes off less as self defence and more premeditated murder of the entire police force en masse. That might even include black officers because no difference is given, and assumes all cops are evil. Marley’s character only targeted the sheriff and insists the deputy wasn’t his doing. He’s even willing to go to prison if he has to for the sheriff’s shooting but not the deputy because the alternative would have been the morgue. There’s no similar conciliation in “Cop Killer”. It’s just killing all the cops for the actions of a few, whatever you may think of the actual cases involved. THIS IS NOT A POLITICAL SITE so I’m not going to go through those cases, especially since I do know a bit more about the King event than I do Gates, or make a defense or attack for either song, and I would ask you to do the same. I’m just analysing the story for one song, since “Cop Killer” isn’t a narrative, it’s a declaration if not a manifesto. You can’t really properly compare them beyond the surface.

Personally I’m not a fan of the song on musical grounds. The chorus is way too high pitched, the song has very little narrative and just repeats the same lines so often beyond the usual chorus, and we have the framework for the story without an actual story. I am surprised it never got a movie based on the premise though. Last time we saw “Copacabana” and “The Gambler” had songs, and the former had a full story while the latter was more seeing the character on his last card. This is far more open, and the idea that the protagonist has to prove he’s only guilty of protecting himself from a rouge law “enforcer”, even going with my theory that the sheriff killed the deputy and wanted to get rid of the witness, has the makings for a good mystery. No offense to Marley or his fans but this song just doesn’t work for me. Don’t shoot the reviewer.


About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

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