Behind the Meaning of “I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Note: American Songwriter does not condone violence against anyone, from law enforcement to private citizens.

What a time to be alive.

As of this writing, protests have lined the streets after the recent United States Supreme Court ruling, overturning Roe v. Wade. This comes on the heels of massive global protests concerning the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and general unrest due to the meaning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s hard to escape the fact that everyday people are at odds with authority figures throughout the country, and the world.

And it’s from similar unrest that the song “I Shot the Sheriff” was born from the artistic prowess of Jamaican songwriter and performer, Bob Marley. Let’s dive into the meaning of the meaningful track.

Origins

“I Shot the Sheriff” is a protest song written by Marley, who released the track in 1973 on the Bob Marley and the Wailers album, Burnin’.

Of the song, Marley himself said, “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.”

Feeling persecuted, Marley wrote the protest song about self-defense, meaning that the protagonist in the song saw the “Sheriff” aiming at him, so he shot first. But the gun violence wasn’t blind: he did not “shoot the deputy.” Meaning, that he was not indiscriminately firing at all people in uniform, just those looking to take his life.

It’s certainly a touchy subject—especially today—but the meaning is born, as Marley says, out of a sense of justice and self-defense, not rage.

Ice-T and Hypocrisy

In 1992, as the controversial song “Cop Killer” by rapper Ice-T was becoming more and more famous, Ice-T’s supporters pointed to Marley’s song as evidence of prior popular releases touching on similar justice-minded subject matter.

Marley’s song was often cited by Ice-T’s supporters, who claimed hypocrisy, saying there was not the same amount of outrage for the reggae track that dealt with the same subject matter as there was for the rap track, as rap and Hip-Hop had yet to take over as the main form of entertainment in 1992. (Now, though, rap is the predominant music and culture in many areas of the world, its trap percussion and beats have even entered country music, featured on likely and unlikely sources like Morgan Wallen’s “You Proof“).

Birth Control Skepticism?

In a twist of fate, Marley’s former girlfriend Esther Anderson claimed in 2012 that the lyrics, Sheriff John Brown always hated me / For what, I don’t know / Every time I plant a seed / He said, ‘Kill it before it grow,’ actually had to do with birth control and her use of the pill. And that Marley supposedly substituted the word “doctor” with sheriff.

Cover Versions: Clapton and Warren G

In 1974, U.K. guitar legend Eric Clapton recorded a cover of the song and included it on his 1974 LP, 461 Ocean Boulevard, giving a soft rock side to the reggae track.

The song peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, which is Clapton’s only U.S. No. 1 to date. And in 2003, his version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In 1997, rapper Warren G released a cover of the song on his sophomore album, Take a Look Over Your Shoulder. The song resembles Marley’s but also includes a lot of additional rap lyrics written by Warren G. It also includes samples of other voices, including KRS-ONE. In the United States, the song, which talked about police brutality and institutional racism, peaked at No. 20.

Lyrics Meaning

The song talks about violence against law enforcement. In fact, the first line is, of course, I shot the sheriff. But Marley stops short of advocating for an all-out war against police, saying that he did not shoot the deputy, meaning he was not all-encompassing in his aim.

And that’s a good thing.

As the song continues, Marley’s singer talks about people looking for him, trying to track me down and saying he is guilty of the killing of a deputy, even though he has not done it.

Later in the song, Marley says freedom came my way one day and he starts to leave town, before seeing Sheriff John Brown aiming to shoot me down. So Marley shot.

He sings:

Reflexes got the better of me
And what is to be must be
Every day the bucket goes to the well
But one day the bottom will drop out
Yes, one day the bottom will drop out, but I say

I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy, oh no
I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy, oh no

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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