Jimmy Buffet: Hymnographer

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How Jimmy Buffet can help cultivate the virtue of detachment

I started listening to Jimmy Buffet songs when I was in law school. Though I was ambitiously studying hard so I could get a job with a powerful law firm, I was drawn to Buffet’s music because it celebrates a radically carefree lifestyle.

As I later settled into my career as a lawyer, I increasingly enjoyed Buffet’s music as I was increasingly wrapped in the world’s snares. This irony has puzzled me, even as I walked around my house humming his tunes. I’ve concluded that it stems from the need for detachment, a need that Buffet counsels in his music. Music that, for this reason, resembles hymns.


Detachment 101: St. Francis of Assisi

The virtue of detachment is the rejection of the self-regarding cares that bounce us through life like a ball in a pinball machine. If a person is detached, the cares and concerns of the world don’t affect—attach to—him because he doesn’t care about himself.

The detached person doesn’t care about the things that drive most people—worldly status, money, security in the earth’s riches. As a result, the detached person is often poorer in monetary riches, but, in compensation, he receives an ample appreciation of the earth’s beauty as he sees the goodness of God’s creation without distorting it through the lens of his ego.

St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” G.K. Chesterton expounded on these words in his biography of St. Francis, writing, “It is not only true that the less a man thinks of himself, the more he thinks of his good luck and of all the gifts of God. It is also true that he sees more of the things themselves when he sees more of their origin . . .”. These words, and St. Francis’ life, are lessons in detachment. Chesterton’s analysis (unsurprisingly) continues far past this and explains how St. Francis’ detachment blossomed into something yet richer and holier.

But St. Francis’ first step, as Chesterton recognized, was detachment.

Detachment is the lesson of Buffet’s songs. His songs say, “Ignore the cares of the world so you can enjoy the world.” It’s the message that makes Buffet’s songs loved by everyone who hears them (except perhaps the seriously damned, the seriously holy, and the seriously musical).  The songs speak to our nature, to our soul, like religious communication must.

Buffet’s signature song, Margaritaville, recounts the daily life of the singer, a man whose day revolves around margaritas (a strong, tequila-based drink). The song rings with intense detachment, starting with its opening lines, “Nibblin’ on sponge cake, watchin’ the sun bake . . . Strummin’ my six-string on my front porch swing.” The entire song echoes a similar, devil-may-care attitude. “Don’t know the reason/Stayed here all season/With nothing to show but this brand new tattoo.”

Appreciating the song requires hearing the laid-back tune (Buffet started his career as a country singer, and his songs still have that easy twang). The tune brings home the attitude behind the lyrics. Together, the lyrics and tune resound in the soul, making the listener say, “That would be a better life. That’s better than working fifty hours a week and trying to earn yet more money.”


St. Buffet v. Peale

Even though Buffet’s counsels are steeped in sloth and fleshly desires (and such things are poison to the true religious virtue of detachment—the detached man doesn’t care for those things), he’s still better to hear than many preachers.

Many preachers are as wrapped in the world’s lures as a stockbroker, banker, or other businessman. Norman Vincent Peale, for instance, told the story about Miss Lou, a widow with no skills who started a home-based candy business and became so successful that she was named Mississippi’s Woman of the Year. Peale asked rhetorically whether this great woman was “in” her all along, and replied: “Certainly! It just hadn’t been awakened. Who awakened it? She prayed, she worked, she believed. And Jesus brought forth the great woman who was in her all the time.’” For Peale, the religious life translates into business success.

Buffet once sang about an old man who was whiling away his final days: “Now he lives in the islands, fishes the pilin’s and drinks his green label each day. He’s writing his memoirs and losing his hearing, but he don’t care what most people say. . . If he likes you he’ll smile then he’ll say, ‘Jimmy, some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I had a good life all the way.”

You tell me which one, Peale or Buffet, is closer to the religious life.


Spiritual Solace in Margaritaville

I graduated from law school, took that job with a powerful law firm but quickly reverted to the small-town practice of law. I worked hard, raised children, carried lots of cares, shouldered lots of worries.

I’m not in my fifties. Financial concerns aren’t nearly as pressing. Most of the kids are out of the house.

But I still carry too many cares and shoulder too many worries.

Even though I understand the need for detachment and strive for it, every week brings another flood of concerns. At times I pray. Sometimes I sit quietly or read a religious seer’s counsel.

And sometimes I grab a beer and turn on Buffet.

They all help me to recollect and step away from this jungle called the flesh and world. Jimmy Buffet is no saint and his songs really ought not be called hymns. But he speaks to this struggling, half-baked sinner better than many preachers.