Brits are more likely to think of “Many Rivers To Cross” as an early-80s hit by UB40, but Jimmy Cliff wrote the song, and originally recorded it, 15 years earlier.
“Many Rivers To Cross” is often described as a reggae song, which I can understand as Jimmy Cliff is usually regarded as a reggae artist, but for me “Many Rivers To Cross” almost has a gospel quality — not just from the heartrending lyrics, but in the pleading style in which Jimmy Cliff sings it.
And, of course, crossing rivers, pushing through the obstacles strewn in your path, and enduring seemingly endless hardship before reaching the promised land, very much draws on biblical imagery.
But round here, we’re generally less concerned with the academic classifications of songs and lyrics, and much more concerned with celebrating the song itself, and its songwriters.
Jimmy Cliff had both literal and metaphorical rivers to cross himself…well, perhaps more oceans than rivers, but I think the general point still holds.
He grew up in Jamaica and worked hard through his teenage years to find recognition as a recording artist. Despite having some modest success, his career wasn’t going anywhere fast, so he decamped to London to start from ground zero all over again.
A whole new set of rivers to cross in a strange land, far from family and friends back home.
It took a little while, but eventually Jimmy Cliff got the traction he had been looking for, and deserved.
His 1969 single, “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” shifted his career up a gear and performed reasonably well — Top 10 in the UK, Top 30 in the US.
But Jimmy Cliff’s influence on music is far greater than his chart performances. Songs he wrote, like “Many Rivers To Cross”, “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want” formed the bedrock that the ska and rocksteady movements drew on heavily in the late 1970s and 80s.
Despite not being a huge chart success when it came out in 1969, “Many Rivers To Cross” is a gorgeous song. Beautifully written, of course, but, just as importantly, beautifully delivered.