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Music

Why did Bob Marley shoot the sheriff?

Over 40 years on from the death of Bob Marley he remains a spiritual numen for millions in every single corner of the world. His words are lived by, and his music is lived along to. With wisdom, dreaminess and rhythm he changed the way we look at music, offering up so much, and asking only for our ears in return. He crammed this all into 36 years, brimming with creativity and fearless intent that even tackled governments. 

Every single Marley song has one snippet of spiritualism. Even the melodies themselves and the way he played them with his trusted Wailers had an essential wisp of ethereal wistfulness about them. However, it was his words that made him an icon. With pointed poignancy, he tackled the ways of the world and man in a call for cognizance that proved bliss didn’t have to be ignorant. 

However, usually, these were plainspoken affairs. In fact, that was the point of them. After all, there is no point in making a stand against nuclear weaponry if nobody understands what you’re talking about. This reality makes ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ an oddity in his back catalogue. It is one of his most famous tracks, but it is also one of his most misunderstood. 

From the outset with ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ you get the sense that something is lyrically afoot. Seeing as though Bob Marley clearly wasn’t a murderer, just who was this sheriff, and how and why was he metaphorically slain? It seems very un-Marley-like to propagate violence in his songs, and that is exactly why he went figurative with it on this occasion—he wanted to make it clear that this was a piece of poetry to be figured out.

So, what is the solution to this figurative crime? Well, as Marley’s ex-lover explains in the film Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend, the sheriff was actually a doctor who prescribed her birth control pills. Of course, Marley didn’t shoot the doctor, but he did ask her not to take the pills as he viewed them as a symbol of the “elements of wickedness” that the sheriff represents. Hence lyrics like, “Every time I plant a seed/He said kill it before it grow.”

This was not necessarily purely a song about birth control pills though. Marley saw the sheriff as an authority figure standing in the way of spiritual ideals. But the deputy merely acting out on orders is free from the wrath… even if he still is rendered slightly guilty by association, he just about gets off the hook. 

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