Look at all of the things I've done that are really not reggae: "Sitting in Limbo," "Many Rivers to Cross," "Trapped." So really first and foremost, I'm an artist. - Jimmy Cliff, November 2011 GQ)
A Jimmy Cliff resurgence is afoot, and it's giving me the opportunity to make up for a sizeable lapse in my musical education. He just performed with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and released a new EP, Sacred Fire (becoming a full release next year). Even before that, though, I was pondering him because he showed up in a big music feature in GQ called "The Survivors," about a group of artists who've "never stopped rocking" despite various challenges.
Everything I've read today makes clear that Cliff is a consummate collaborator, influencer of many other musicians and passionate social commentator, and has always marched to the beat of his own drummer as far as the music industry is concerned. Which may be why the entirety of his career has not followed a trajectory that led to enduring commercial success. But I don't know if that really matters.
In the 60s and 70s I wasn't into reggae, wasn't really even exposed to it in any significant way I can recall, so I was only dimly aware of Cliff then. What's interesting to me is his comment above about not seeing himself as a reggae artist exclusively, particularly in view of GQ's contention that he would belong in the pantheon of great musicians for Many Rivers To Cross alone. A recent Cliff performance of this song at an intimate venue in New York City had the club owner in tears, according to one report I saw, and I would imagine I'd have been right there with him. This is gospel and gospel music never fails to unhinge me. It takes only seconds, usually; I have absolutely no defenses against it.
Though world music might be a better category for him overall, Cliff is generally considered the poster child for reggae; outside his native Jamaica, he has long been viewed as an ambassador for the rhythmic musical style with the upbeat tempo. In fact, he was one of Jamaica's cultural representatives to the 1964 World's Fair in New York (I was there!). When he was 14, he left the impoverished rural community he lived in, having quit school, moved to Kingston, overlaid ska beats on American music, and then had his first hit, Hurricane Hattie. (This was an actual hurricane that ravaged the Caribbean in 1961.) He's said in interviews that reggae developed organically, emerging from him and other Jamaican performers who were frustrated having to sing music that in no way represented their specific social consciousness or life experience.
Personal note: Setting aside Eric Clapton's cover of Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff, my first really meaningful introduction to reggae, which is still flimsy at best, came in the form of a band that an old boyfriend and I followed devoutly in Columbus, Ohio, in the 80s, Arnett Howard's Creole Funk Band. Howard's repertoire was comprised of many influences, particularly Jamaican, and we became regulars at many of the Columbus venues where the band performed. I will always remember how the music propelled our relationship forward - it made us get out on the dance floor on a regular basis and put us in touch with a sort of joy that had a strengthening effect on us for a very long time.
As is the way with music, genres are revered and altered in other genres. Among the well known Cliff appreciators were The Clash's Joe Strummer, and today, Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, who produced Sacred Fire; Cliff covers their song Ruby Soho on the EP. The trend of younger artists (Jeff Tweedy of Wilco with Mavis Staples or Jack White with Wanda Jackson come to mind) nurturing older artists in the studio and giving them new life is one that is bearing very interesting fruit right now. Bob Dylan allegedly pronounced Vietnam the best protest song ever written (Cliff has updated this now to Afghanistan); Paul Simon's Mother and Child Reunion grew out of his admiration of Cliff (it was recorded in Jamaica with Cliff-associated backing musicians), who has made at least one wildly successful cameo appearance on Simon's current concert tour. These are only some of the artists who count Jimmy Cliff as important to them personally or in general.
And then there's The Harder They Fall, which starred Cliff and to whose soundtrack he contributed several original songs, including Many Rivers To Cross. It turns 40 next year. I've never seen it, but it's now in my Netflix queue and I'm looking forward to checking it out. In the GQ interview, Cliff hints a remake may be in the works. New life, indeed. I'll play Cliff out with him singing Many Rivers To Cross at this year's Glastonbury festival in England. We can dispense with the dry eyes right now.