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Jimmy Buffett, The Bard Of America’s Saltwater Cowboys

Before there were cowboys, there were sailors, and the ballads and ghost stories and romance were theirs.

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On my drive home from an overdue stop at the dry cleaners early Friday evening, I had a random urge to listen to Jimmy Buffett. I cranked up the volume on “Margaritaville” and belted out the chorus, transported back to my Florida childhood for a moment, away from the rush hour traffic heading westbound out of D.C. in the first hours of a holiday weekend. “Cheeseburger in Paradise” recalled beachside snack shacks, the kind where styrofoam boxes and tin foil serve as plates and no one ever bothers to wipe the salty fingerprints off the ketchup bottles. And then “A Pirate Looks At Forty” came on, and all I wanted was to be on a boat somewhere, with nothing but blue horizon on every side and salty breeze battering my eyelashes as waves crashed under the bow. When I got home, I lamented to my husband about Northern Virginia’s lack of those street vendors who will chop the top off a coconut with a machete for you and hand you a straw to drink from it.

The next morning, I learned the pirate had died sometime in the night. I’m no music critic, so I won’t try to elucidate how Buffett’s music managed to capture the feeling of bringing the boat in at sunset to fry up the day’s catch and wash it down with a cold drink. I can only say that it does.

My first memory of hearing his songs was as a kid, after a day of diving for scallops in the Gulf on my uncle’s boat with my dad’s side of the family. I was young enough that I hadn’t yet realized he and Warren Buffett were two different people. But I have a mental snapshot of being told that the songs playing on the radio were Jimmy Buffett’s, as I watched the shoreline loom ever larger on the boat ride home.

Now that I’m grown and several states away, I’ll sometimes listen to his music when I miss that view. I’m convinced we Americans are particularly stirred by the wide frontier of the ocean — after all, the country we know never would have existed if the same tug hadn’t burdened the hearts of seamen centuries ago. Wide open spaces are in our blood. In an age where satellites have left no corner of the globe unexamined, when our risk-phobic society wraps everything in plastic and plexiglass, Jimmy spoke for those who wondered if we’d arrived “two hundred years too late.” When he would “haul the sheet in as we ride on the wind that our forefathers harnessed before us,” he connected you to them too.

After all, before there were cowboys, there were sailors, and the ballads and ghost stories and romance were theirs.

But as fast as Buffett could make you feel that sweet, touching kind of lonely, he could whisk you back to memories of cracking open beers and bottles of Mexican Coke and chowing down on the freshest fish of your life with your favorite people.

He immortalized, just as well as the feeling of setting out on the open ocean, the feeling of coming back to your home port — maybe after a long voyage, maybe just after an afternoon fishing trip. He could, in the words he used to describe what boats could do, both “take you around the world” and “bring you back home.” When he named a greatest hits album “Songs You Know By Heart,” no one could accuse him of being hyperbolic.

RIP, Jimmy. Now I’m off to “head uptown” and raise a glass to you.


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