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The Executioner's Song: Buffalo Soldier

(This week, On Violence continues its second annual(ish) “Executioner’s Song: The On Violence Epic Song Battle!" Click here to read our introduction. Click here to check out the first one here.)

“Woy yoy yoy. Woy yoy yoy yoy. Woy yoy yoy yoy yo yoy yoy yo.”

I’m driving the other day, thinking about nothing in particular, when Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” comes on the radio. I do what I do every time the song comes on. I start singing one of the world’s most infectious choruses of all time, “Oy yoy yoy. Oh yo yoy yoy. Oh yoy yoy yo yoy yoy yo.”

Then it hits me. This is the Greatest. War song. Ever. And I’m dead serious.

There are a lot of reasons to love Bob Marley’s song “Buffalo Soldier”. It has beautiful singing and a wonderful melody; of the five war songs we’ve debated, “Buffalo Soldier” is easily the best from a musical perspective.

But the reason it is a great war song is that it is nuanced, detailed, historic and realistic.

War is an indefinite thing. Michael C’s entire series on “war is war” basically gets at how illusory a unifying theory or description of war can be. There probably is no such thing as “the perfect war song” (or even the perfect song), but if there were, it would try to capture the contradictory nature of war. “Buffalo Soldier” comes closer to this than any other war song.

“Buffalo Soldier” presents this indefinite essence of war to the listener like a painting on display. Neither pro-war or anti-war, happy and joyful (one of my first musical memories is dancing to its deceptively bright and catchy chorus), it is incredibly sad, a tale of men “stolen from Africa, brought to America”. It is also ironically bittersweet. Though it is a song about stolen men, Bob Marley sings with pride at what they’ve accomplished.

If the ultimate war song is going to capture the essence of war through a story, it can’t be a story about one man, platoon or war. It has to capture a people, a people that spans continents and nations. “Buffalo Soldier” tells that story. It is the story of many peoples: Africans, Americans, Rastafarians, Jamaicans. At its heart the song is about identity, “Said he was a Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta”, a story that spans centuries and eras. Man, that is powerful and different.

You could argue that there are problems with “Buffalo Soldier”--the lyrics are vague, the connection between Jamaican Rastafarianism and American Soldiers is tenuous at best--but the impact of the song on so many levels is undeniable. That’s why, right now, it is easily my favorite war song.

One comment

I don’t see this song so much as a tune about war for war’s sake, more about the war of identity the U.S. government imposed on people because of the color of their skin.