As Bob Marley compositions go, “I Shot the Sheriff” has to rank among the reggae legend’s finest. It’s certainly among Marley’s most famous tracks with The Wailers, thanks in part to the Eric Clapton cover that followed in ’74. But decades later, Marley’s anthem of defiance stands tall on its own.
Setting the powerful arrangement (and Bunny Wailer’s backing vocals) aside, Marley’s story appears to be as simple and direct as can be in “I Shot the Sheriff.” The narrator sees a lawman who’s been aiming to take him down. But instead of waiting for the sheriff to fire, the narrator draws first and drops him.
That leaves the deputy, whom the narrator can’t take down. Authorities want to charge the narrator, but he objects. (He claims self-defense.) And that’s basically it, other than the final lines (possibly a warning). “Every day the bucket a-go a well / One day the bottom a-go drop out.”
Yet several people present during the composition of “I Shot the Sheriff” have pointed out alternate messages within the song (including lines about killing seeds). And the tensions within The Wailers may also have shaped the song.
Bob Marley said ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ was simply about justice
After the release of “I Shot the Sheriff,” Marley confirmed the basic message of the track and explained why he chose the figure of the sheriff, which is not a figure in Jamaican law enforcement.
“I want to say ‘I shot the police,’ but the government would have made a fuss,” Marley said in an interview reprinted on the Bob Marley website. “So I said ‘I shot the sheriff’ instead. But it’s the same idea: justice.”
“From the start, it was intended to have that cowboy ballad vibes,” Bunny Wailer told Roger Steffens in So Much Things to Say (2017). Lee Jaffe, a close friend of Marley and The Wailers’, told Steffens it began with Marley joking around with him.
“The song came out of me playing harmonica on a beach,” Jaffe explained. “Bob was playing guitar and said, ‘I shot the sheriff.’ And I said, ‘But you didn’t get the deputy!’ It was a joke because they don’t have sheriffs in Jamaica. Bob was witty, it was about him hanging out with this white guy — me.”
Marley’s girlfriend said a few lines referenced birth control
In the song, Marley sings about how Sheriff John Brown always hated the narrator (for what, he doesn’t know). “Every time I plant a seed, [Brown] say kill it before it grow,” Marley sang. “He say kill them before they grow.”
Esther Anderson, a girlfriend of Marley’s who claimed she co-wrote the song, said those lines had another meaning. “It’s about birth control,” she said in So Much Things to Say. “Bob was always after me to breed and have a baby with him. […] I told him I was on the pill. The sheriff is the doctor.”
Listeners also can’t discount the tensions within The Wailers in this era. In The Natural Mystics (2011), Colin Grant notes how Marley referenced those struggles when speaking about his composition. “Me have to shoot all sheriff,” Marley said of The Wailers.