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Jimmy Buffett passed away on September 1 from an aggressive form of skin cancer. I was not a huge fan; I only knew his big hits. But at the time of his passing, I decided I owed the man a deep dive into his life and music. I think The Guardian captured his obituary well.
Jimmy Buffett, who has died aged 76, was an American singer-songwriter whose country-tinged soft rock celebrated the laid-back culture of the Florida Keys on the Caribbean coast of the US. Sometimes known as the “tropical troubadour”, his songs often featured the voices of characters who appreciated the aimless pleasures of beach life: smoking weed, drinking rum and eating boiled shrimps, messing around in boats and generally watching the world go by.
His life is summarized in three paragraphs.
Buffett was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, but grew up in the nearby port town of Mobile in Alabama, where his parents, James and Mary (nee Peets), both worked in administrative roles for the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company. After attending McGill–Toolen Catholic high school he went to Auburn University in Alabama, where he took up the guitar, neglected his studies and dropped out after a year. Restarting his education at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, he graduated with a history degree in 1969.
After a period playing in clubs in New Orleans, Buffett moved in 1970 to Nashville, Tennessee, to record his first low-key album, Down to Earth, while working as a journalist on Billboard music magazine.
In 1971 he gave up on writing in favour of relocating to Key West, an island in the Straits of Florida that is nearer to Cuba than Miami. In what was then a rather run-down, pre-tourist-boom setting, he generally lived the life he sang about in his songs – busking, playing in bars for drinking money, hiring himself out as a crew member on yachts and lazing around in the sun.
What I found interesting in that little summary is that he grew up Catholic. I did not know that and would never have guessed. There are a number of articles that expressed how Catholicism influenced his work. Here is an article from the National Catholic Register, “Jimmy Buffett: More Catholic Than You Think?”
The “Margaritaville” singer was raised Catholic, though he did not — at least openly — appear to practice his faith later in life. But according to one commentator, Buffett’s music contained — at least upon closer examination — some deeper, and arguably Catholic, themes, especially when it came to the importance of balancing work and play.
Frankly, from my deep dive into his music, I’m unconvinced. Buffett doesn’t express a balance of work and play. He played in a semi-hedonistic way. As I surveyed his songs, I was surprised how much boozing and drugs were on display. He was indulgent to the max, at least in his songs.
His biggest hit is “Margaritaville,” with the central verse, “Wasted away again in Margaritaville.” He has songs titled “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” and I won’t repeat the verse that follows the title verse, and another called “The Wino and I Know,” and “Too Drunk to Karaoke.” I would say more songs than not have abuse of alcohol or drugs or sex involved. So, no, I don’t think he had much Catholicism in his music.
At his best, he had an ability to present a story within the tight structure of a song, and often those songs have nifty, winsome lyrics. Besides “Margaritaville,” some of his other hits include “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Come Monday,” and others.
I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by his hits. His songs seem to break down into three types: a winsome story, a story of indulgence, and a contemplative song. I found his contemplative songs to be much more interesting. I had not realized until I did this research how contemplative his songs could be.
“He Went to Paris,” “In the Shelter,” “Tin Cup Chalice,” “The Captain and the Kid,” “Biloxi,” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” are all such songs. Besides the gentleness of the songs, what I think they also share is a folksy, country sound and a highly developed storyline, frequent internal rhyming, and the settling into a Gulf Coast lifestyle.
For me, these are his best songs, and perhaps the very best of them is “Son of a Son of a Sailor.” It’s the one song I think captures the essence of Jimmy Buffett, storyteller, native sprout of the Gulf coast, and contemplative rascal. Here is “Son of a Son of A Sailor.”
The lyrics are wonderful.
As the son of a son of a sailor
I went out on the sea for adventure
Expanding their view of the captain and crew
Like a man just released from indenture
As a dreamer of dreams and a travelin’ man
I have chalked up many a mile
Read dozens of books about heroes and crooks
And I’ve learned much from both of their styles
Son of a son, son of a son, son of a son of a sailor
Son of a gun; load the last ton
One step ahead of the jailer
Now away in the near future, southeast of disorder
You can shake the hand of the mango man
As he greets you at the border
And the lady she hails from Trinidad
Island of the spices
Salt for your meat and cinnamon sweet
And the rum is for all your good vices
Haul the sheet in as we ride on the wind that our
Forefathers harnessed before us
Hear the bells ring as the tight rigging sings
It’s a son of a gun of a chorus
Where it all ends I can’t fathom, my friends
If I knew, I might toss out my anchor
So I’ll cruise along always searchin’ for songs
Not a lawyer, a thief or a banker
But a son of a son, son of a son, son of a son of a sailor
Son of a gun, load the last ton
One step ahead of the jailer
I’m just a son of a son, son of a son, son of a son of a sailor
The sea’s in my veins, my tradition remains
I’m just glad I don’t live in a trailer
What really first captured me was the central phrase “son of a son of a sailor.” The alliteration of the “s” is so catchy, but the rhythm of the phrase has such a good beat. Then, when he extends the phrase to “son of a son, son of a son, son of a son of a sailor” it feels like the rhythm of a boat riding on the waves.
Second, the theme is so endearing to me. The “son of a son of a sailor” brings you back to his grandfather, and captures three generations of working a trade which is raised here to a fine craft (excuse the pun). “Load the last ton,” “Haul the sheet in,” and “Hear the bells ring as the tight rigging sings,” captures the working man’s aspect to sailing. It’s what connects him to his “forefathers.”
But the song has greater range than just a working man’s song. The theme expands outward. Buffett captures the exotic and romance of the sea as well. The narrator is a “dreamer of dreams”—another great phrase that echoes “son of son”—and he travels to the “mango man” and the lady of spices as he lives a life of adventure and as searcher of songs.
Buffett also captures the roguish nature of working the seas—perhaps trading contraband and whatever “your good vices” implies, and keeping “one step ahead of the jailer.” You would think such a short song, it would have focused on one theme, but Buffett seems to have woven several themes for quite a panoramic perspective.
One last theme I think and key to the song is the reflective nature of this meditation on his life. The song’s range not only spans space and culture but it also spans time. It spans his life. He projects time from when he first goes out to sea, to chalking “up many a mile,” into the “near future,” and finally when it will all end, where he remains connected to the tradition of his forefathers. That tradition is what has brought joy to his life and, ultimately, satisfaction.
Well, he is no longer sailing and searching for songs, except for one last journey. May in the end he have found peace in the Lord, and may his Catholic faith, if he still had it at the end, have shaped his ultimate destiny. Eternal rest in peace for Jimmy Buffett.Published in