Enlightened Lyrics: Buffalo Soldier

Ira man, welcome on back to Enlightened Lyrics. This post marks the return of Enlightened Lyrics, and we’re starting off strong with a song by the legendary Bob Marley himself, the title says “Buffalo Soldier” and it’s not lying. Well then, I hope you’re excited for the return of the segment and join me again the Tuesday after winter break for another one.

The song opens up with the following lines:

Buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta:
There was a buffalo soldier in the heart of america,
Stolen from africa, brought to america,
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.

The song seems to reference the actions of the “Buffalo Soldiers” who were a regiment of cavalry made up of African Americans. They were, now controversially, referred to as the “Negro Cavalry”, but referred to as the “Buffalo Soldiers” by Native Americans. I can tell this is already going to be a minefield. So I shall tread lightly. But it seems as if Marley is drawing a comparison between the Buffalo Soldiers and Jamaicans. Understandably, not all Jamaicans are Rastafarian, but the term “Dreadlock Rasta” would have to refer to Jamaica, because that’s where it started.

The second line refers to where the Buffalo Soldiers were fighting: the heart of America. The heart of America is considered to be Kansas (because it’s right in the middle of the United States), which makes sense contextually as this was where the first Buffalo Soldier regiment was formed. The second line references how most of these men got to the new world, they were stolen. This may be a nod to the history of slavery in the United States and how the slaves were offered to join wars and if they survived would be set free. This happened a lot during the U.S. Civil War in the north, but the Buffalo Soldiers fought in the “American Indian” Wars as well as the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars. They also turned up in both of the World Wars. The “fighting on arrival” might refer to their struggle to break from their original captors and their “fighting for survival” is their struggle for self-preservation, in war and outside of it too.

I mean it, when I analyze the stench –
To me it makes a lot of sense:
How the dreadlock Rasta was the buffalo soldier,

And he was taken from Africa, brought to America,
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.
Said he was a buffalo soldier, dreadlock Rasta –
Buffalo soldier in the heart of America.

This second segment reinforces the claims we can draw from the first verse. The ideas of the “dreadlock” Rasta appear again, this time they are compared with the Buffalo Soldiers. Could Marley be saying the Buffalo soldiers are like the Jamaicans? Possibly, but this is improbable. What makes more sense is that the Buffalo Soldiers represent all black people. It’s important to consider the circumstance in which the song was written, the 70’s were a time after the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. But in this world, there will always be racism. The comparison between the Buffalo Soldiers (who were fighting for their lives and freedom) and the black people of the 70’s (who were now being better treated, compared to how they were treated before) sort of shows that there was still trouble in the lives of the black people. Marley uses a play on words with the phrase “dreadlock Rasta”. The term “dreadlock” may be a play on words of “deadlock”, meaning a predicament where both parties are at an impasse and cannot make any progress. This could refer to the idea that even though policies were passed and the politics on the treatment of black people have improved, there is still conflict (as I said, there will always be racism).

Said he was a buffalo soldier win the war for America;
Buffalo soldier,dreadlock Rasta,
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival;
Driven from the mainland to the heart of the Caribbean.

The third verse also confirms the new claim of how there was a struggle with black people in the 70’s was shown through the references of the Buffalo Soldiers. The final line is the most important here. The mainland would refer to the continent of Africa, as the heart of the Caribbean refers to Jamaica. This connection is simple. Logically, Marley would refer to Jamaica as the heart of the Caribbean because Cuba is mainly Hispanic, so is the Dominican Republic and several other islands, but also Marley is Jamaican and it makes sense in the context of the song. This refers to the history of the island when black slaves were brought in to work on plantations. This is not dissimilar to how black people were taken from Africa to North America for similar purposes and then eventually organised into regiments of cavalry.

Troddin’ through San Juan in the arms of America;
Troddin’ through Jamaica, a Buffalo Soldier
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival:
Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta.

One final claim. Several lyrics found online miss the part about San Juan, but what is it? San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico. But where would the link be between Puerto Rico and the buffalo soldiers? Remember the list of conflicts they were involved in? One of them was the Spanish-American war. The Spanish once owned Puerto Rico (“Rich Port” in Spanish) and lost it during the war. The battle of San Juan hill was arguably the most important battle of the war and resulted in the island becoming a territory of the United States (some consider it the 51st state. People talk about European imperialism, take a look at all the land America owns today, you might be surprised). “In the arms of America”, maybe the caucasian leaders of the United States treated the Buffalo Soldiers well, I do not know, my knowledge does not extend that far. But what I do know is that Marley was strengthening the bond once again between the Buffalo Soldiers and the struggle of the black people/dreadlock rastas with more details and once again repeating the two phrases, not only was it a connotative choice, it was also a stylistic device to promote a connection between the two.

And now for the fun part of the song.

Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!
Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!

The bridge,really, doesn’t mean anything but the way the bridge is sung brings to mind a song by the Banana Splits called “The Tra-La-La Song“. Although this connection exists, there is no connection between the Banana Splits and Buffalo Soldiers.

In conclusion, the song demonstrates the racial battle that black people have had to face since the age of imperialism. It’s fairly topical considering we’ve got the Black Lives Matter movement going on in the States and the controversy surrounding that, it goes to prove Marley’s point in which racial dispute continues even to this day.

But don’t think about all that sad stuff, just think about how fun the Jamaican accent is, and me got you an early present mon, I ‘ope you like it. Ira mon, ’cause trust me mon, ev’ry little tin’s gonna be alrigh.

Until 2017, this is Major Tom signing off.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Luis Cortes says:

    “Trodding through San Juan” may have another meaning since many slave ships stopped in San Juan, Puerto Rico before they were taken elsewhere. Specifically they were brought to El Morro Castle that served as a fort and a prison during colonial times.
    It could also refer to the battle of San Juan Hill as you said, but in that case it would not be referring to Puerto Rico. San Juan Hill is in Cuba.


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