Perfect Sound Forever


Nuff Lyrics: The Story of "Book of Rules"
by Eric Doumerc

Isn't it strange how princesses and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
Just while common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity.

Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mask, and a book of rules.

And each must make his life flowing in
Tumbling back all those stepping stones,
Just while common people like you and me,
Will be builders for eternity.

Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mask and a book of rules.

Look when the rain has fallen from the sky,
I know the sun will only be missing for a while,
And common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity.

Each is given a bag of tools, a shapeless mask
And a book of rules.

The Heptones were a Jamaican harmony trio who rose to popularity during the rocksteady era of the mid 1960's thanks to a series of recordings for Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One label before moving on to reggae and becoming one of the top groups in that category. The original trio was composed of Leroy Sibbles on lead vocals and Barry Llewellyn and Earl Morgan on harmony. The Heptones stayed at Studio One until 1971 and then worked with various producers like Joe Gibbs, Harry Mudie, and Harry Johnson (Harry J).

According to the liner notes on the Book of Rules album, the Heptones started working with Harry J in late 1973 and scored an immediate hit with a song entitled "Book of Rules." The song was released on a 45 on Johnson's Jaywax label and then on their eponymous album released on the Harry J label. Sibbles migrated to Canada around 1974 and went back to Jamaica in 1976. The group recorded then an album entitled Night Food for Harry J which was released on Island Records, and "Book of Rules" was featured on the album. "Book of Rules" (co-written by Johnson and Llewellyn, sung by Llewellyn) was a massive hit in Jamaica and even made an impact in Britain, allowing Llewellyn and Morgan to build houses in the Kingston suburb of Duhaney Park. The group signed a contract with Island and went on tour with Toots and the Maytals.

Following the inclusion of a new version of the song on the Night Food album, the song even enjoyed further success when it was re-released as part of the soundtrack to the film Rockers (1978), no doubt introducing many non-Jamaican reggae fans to its delights.

Over the years, "Book of Rules" has become one of the most popular reggae tunes on account of the universal appeal of the lyrics and of Barry Llewellyn's moving rendition, but it is also an example of Jamaican reggae's tendency to recycle and "version" elements from American culture. In that case, the Heptones borrowed a poem by Robert Lee Sharpe entitled "A Bag of Tools" and the melody of a hit song by Glen Campbell entitled "Try A Little Kindness."

Information about Robert Lee Sharpe is hard to come by but apparently he was born in 1870 and died in 1950, and his father Edwin R. Sharpe owned the Carrolton Free Press in Carrollton, Georgia, USA. The poem seems to be a well-known one in the USA and was anthologised in James Dalton's Morrison's Masterpieces of Religious Verse (Harper, 1948) and A.L.Alexander's Poems that Touch the Heart (Doubleday, 1941 and 1956). Sharpe's poem may have been part of a longer piece, but only two stanzas were quoted in The Heptones' song:

Isn't it strange how princes and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
And common people like you and me
Are builders for eternity?

Each is given a list of rules;
A shapeless mask; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping-stone.
According to the Make Fun of Life website, the poem was part of the school curricula in various American schools throughout the 1950s but with slight variations such as the substitution of "hourglass" for "shapeless mask." We may assume that the Heptones learnt the poem at school, just like genarations of American schoolchildren.

Sharpe's poem lays the emphasis on individual responsibility, moral choice and the idea that the "common people" and "the princes and kings" alike have to work and contribute to society and that it is up to man to do the best he can to make the most of his life. The general idea is that it's up to us to forge ahead or stop in our tracks, regardless of our social origins.

This idea must have appealed to the Heptones, who grew up in a deeply religious society where the emphasis on moral choice must have been equally strong. But the Heptones did not simply repeat Sharpe's message- they subtly changed it to introduce a social dimension. In the group's version of the poem, there seems to be an opposition between the "princes and kings" who perform in "sawdust rings" while the common people will be the real "buidlers for eternity." The way the song is performed and the slight changes in the wording considerably modify the "message." Likewise, the words "a stumbling block or a stepping stone" were replaced by "tumbling back all those stepping stones," which evokes an image of fighting a battle against uneven odds. The Heptones added two lines to Sharpe's poem ("Look when the rain has fallen from the sky, I know the sun will only be missing for a while"), maybe in order to introduce a more optimistic note.

On top of Sharpe's poem, the Heptones borrowed the melody from Glen Campbell's "Try a Little Kindness." As is well-known, Country and Western has long been popular in the Caribbean, and particularly in Jamaica, and singers like Jim Reeves and Hank Williams were particular favourites in the 1950's. In 1974, Frederick "Toots" Hibbert's covered John Denver's "Country Roads" and Denver's tune lost nothing when translated into the reggae idiom. It probably gained some poignancy. Campbell's song was released in October 1969 and was a massive hit in the USA. It must have been popular in Jamaica too as Jamaicans could easily pick up the signals of the major radio stations in New Orleans and Miami.

With "Book of Rules," the Heptones showed that they could take inspiration from a different cultural zone, combine its various elements to produce something totally unique.


Allen, Leo. Liner notes to the Book of Rules album, Harry J, 1973.
Katz, David. "Barry Llewellyn obituary." The Guardian, 2 December 2011.

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