Song 203: Jimmy Cliff, “Many Rivers to Cross” (1973)

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I’m not proud to admit that I didn’t like reggae, at all, until a few years ago. I found it plodding and sonically thin, for one, and I was tired of frat boys toting around their copies of Bob Marley’s Legend as if they were enlightened.

That’s a slight exaggeration–I’ve always respected Marley, and I’ve always loved ska and rocksteady, related precursors to reggae. But yeah, it was a dickish position, one that remained unchanged until I started listening to the soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come. Conceived as a compilation of the Jamaican music scene between 1967 and 1972, the record was massively successful and massively influential. Along with Bob Marley’s success, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come played a major role in bringing reggae to the masses.

The reason I checked out the record in the first place was seeing a Saturday Night Live episode from the show’s first season in 1975. Jimmy Cliff was the musical guest, and he performed “Many Rivers to Cross,” and it was gorgeous. The song doesn’t sound like what we think of as reggae, but it opened up the genre for me.

I’m not sure why that performance was what made me get past my stupid bias, but I know that I was immediately struck by the humanity of it all. Cliff sounds–and, in that SNL performance, looked–so warm. And for the first time, reggae sounded like people to me, and not some tourist board’s idea of the Caribbean. It sounded homemade.

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