I Shot the Sheriff: Burnin' spliff nearly destroyed Bob Marley's original recording
I Shot The Sheriff is one of Bob Marley's best-known songs first released on the 1973 album Burnin' and popularized a year later by Eric Clapton whose rock cover became the number one hit in America. For half a century, fans have been trying to unearth the hidden meaning behind the track by discussing the motives that prompted Bob Marley to write such defiant lyrics.
For instance, the line "every time I plant a seed, he said kill it before it grow" generated a few popular theories, speculating that the lyric refers to either the destruction of Bob Marley's marijuana plantation or the doctor who prescribed his girlfriend birth control medication.
Although the murder here is entirely fictional, one incident linked to the song is quite real and happened after the production of I Shot The Sheriff, when the reel of tape with the original recording was damaged by burning ash which the bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett dropped from his joint. According to engineer Phil Brown, the atmosphere during the mixing was very fun as the guys danced and smoked in the control room. He did manage to mix the track by including a drum part from another take. He also didn't forget to mention the special quality of those spliffs, saying, "We called them baseball bats, it was neat grass."
Curiously, the song was mentioned in The New Jersey Supreme Court's trial when the judge considered that rap lyrics written by a murder defendant could not be held as proof of his guilt, stating, “One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song I Shot the Sheriff, actually shot a sheriff.”
Listen to I Shot The Sheriff by Bob Marley & The Wailers:
Compositionally, I Shot The Sheriff follows the canons of tonal theory, namely the Aeolian minor mode. In the harmonic analysis of the song's chord chains, the scale degrees (denoted with Roman numerals) show the following progressions in the key of G minor:
- Eb–Dm–Gm or VI–v–i for verses
- Gm–Cm–Gm or i–iv–i for choruses.
The simple two-chord alternation Cm–Gm seen in the choruses is known as the plagal cadence, while the verses are built on the Dm–Gm authentic cadence.
Discover more songs composed in Aeolian minor mode and their harmonic analyses in the following articles:
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- Shaman's Blues: quintessential The Doors song refined their most controversial album
- A Dios le Pido: Juanes' Spanish lyrics behind the song success
- El Farsante and 7 more songs by Ozuna in Dorian and Aeolian modes