The Unsolved Mystery Of Bob Marley's I Shot The Sheriff

While song lyrics tend to stick to an unmistakable point — usually along the lines of "Oh, I love you" — they occasionally are just ambiguous enough to leave it up to the listener to decide what's happening. Bob Marley achieves this in "I Shot the Sheriff," though he does so more due to later comments, as opposed to anything he or Eric Clapton sings.

"I Shot the Sheriff" follows an easy enough narrative. Bob Marley confesses to having shot Sheriff John Brown, in self-defense, but denies having killed the deputy, the person the town is actually trying to try him for. Later on, in 1974, as David Vlado Moskowitz's The Words and Music of Bob Marley unearths, Marley explained that, "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." As current events have made clear, while the police supposedly stand for "justice," the institution has a history of terrorizing Black people, like the pot farmer in Marley's song (and then not facing repercussions, due to qualified immunity). Thus, as the song argues, it is just for one to act in self defense. Hence, "If I'm guilty, I will pay."

However, there's more to this song than meets the eye.

The victim is an interpretive John Doe

Simple, right? Wrong! 

Bob Marley himself was rather cagey about what his song really meant. Before expounding on the point about shooting the police, he actually made a broader point, as fully quoted in Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers By John Masouri: "The message is a kind of diplomatic statement. You have to kind of suss things out. 'I Shot the Sheriff' is like I shot wickedness. It's not really a sheriff; it's the elements of wickedness because people been judging you and you can't stand it no more and you explode. You just explode." Following this, then, he continued about wanting the lyrics to have been, "I shot the police," as previously mentioned. 

On the other hand, however, Marley's ex-girlfriend has claimed that "I Shot the Sheriff" is actually about birth control. As the Miami New Times put it, "[Marley] wanted [Ms. Anderson, Marley's girlfriend] to have his baby. He believed their love was strong and it was sin to kill his seed." So, according to this explanation, the seeds the narrator wants to plant in the song transform from being pot seeds to sperm, with the sheriff killing them before they could develop.

But what about the deputy? No matter what interpretive route we take, you have to contend with the relationship between a sheriff and his deputy. No one ever mentions him, leaving his identity to be the song's real secret.