Listen to this track by Jamaican soul singer, reggae innovator and sometime actor Jimmy Cliff. It’s “Many Rivers To Cross”, a song of hardship and burden in a true gospel style as featured prominently on 1972’s The Harder They Come soundtrack.
This record is perhaps one of the earliest that served as a collection of songs featured in a movie that also turned out to be an essential addition to any respectable record collection while it was at it. It also had the distinction of having the star of the movie as one of the contributors to it; Jimmy Cliff himself.
The song was actually recorded sometime before, in 1969 in fact. It was featured on his self-titled album that year, and certainly displaying Jimmy Cliff’s command of the soul genre. Soul music was popular in the islands, where American radio beamed in the sounds of Motown, Atlantic, Stax, and a myriad of other soul sources. Many of the local artists attempted to replicate it, often missing the mark, and thereby inventing genres of their own. Blue Beat, ska, and reggae all contain traces of American soul in their DNA. But on this track, Jimmy Cliff managed to find the beating heart of the music, and knew well enough to present it using the right textures and striking the right balance; his plaintive tenor voice full of desperation and pathos, the moaning B3 organ straight out of the humidity of a Sunday morning service, and the angelic and responsive backing vocals that make for that churchy, push-me-pull-you feel that is so vital in the making of music like this.
Yet the song’s inclusion in the The Harder They Come soundtrack ties it to reggae, which helped to raise the genre’s profile outside of the Caribbean. As mentioned, reggae is a child of soul music, with many of the same elements that make it what it is. “Many Rivers To Cross” fits in there just fine, musically speaking. It also fits in terms of the film’s themes and narratives, too. Perhaps Cliff’s casting in the lead was at least in part due to his performance on this track, the tale of a lost soul trying to find his way to the other side and to salvation, despite the hardships and barriers that hinder him on the way. How much more universal can a theme like that be?
Maybe that’s why the song, the soundtrack, and the film made a splash outside of the Jamaican market, just in time for the American Blaxploitation boom that dealt in many of the same issues, also known for thematically sympathetic soundtracks. In these films, systemic oppression, lives of violence, and the struggle for individuals to escape to a safer and more prosperous worldare common themes. But, the central figures in the stories are ultimately undone by that oppressive system that shows them few options for success and survival.
In this context, “Many Rivers To Cross” has sociological implications too. It’s not just about a single hero, but about a whole historical movement, when many feel as though they are under the boot of social forces that are in place to keep them where they are. With the underlying protest nature of this tune, it joins the ranks of many such songs, each one providing the soundtracks to many different stories on the screen, but also stories lived by many in the real world even today.
This song is a soul standard, covered by many including Annie Lennox, UB40, Oleta Adams, and many others. The struggle and spiritual yearning for a better world found in this song continues to resonate, transcending the times out of which it has come.
Jimmy Cliff is an active artist today. You can catch up to him at jimmycliff.com,where you can learn about his latest release, Rebirth.
And for more about The Harder They Come, read this article about its making, and its cultural significance in Jamaica and in the rest of the world, too.