Rolling Stone placed Many Rivers to Cross on the 317 spot of their top 500 essential songs, calling it a "hymn about struggle and perseverance." As a song it works on many levels. It is a song about personal everyday struggle first. The lyrics search for that strength and wisdom to overcome the obstacles that everyday life brings us. Wether it is a lost love or a lost job, Many Rivers to Cross seems to be the perfect soundtrack to adversity. On another level, the song has often been perceived as a civil rights anthem. The lyrics to Many Rivers to Cross have a pro-active feel to it. The protagonist to the song is looking to find his land of milk and honey in his life time, he refuses to wait on the here after. The level on which it found most meaning to me recently, is found between the lines. It is the level of that last river to cross, that journey from life into eternal rest. It feels to me like a song that can give one the strength to deal with those final moments, or a song to comfort those left behind. That Many Rivers to Cross works on so many profound levels is probably the reason why it became such a timeless masterpiece. An impressive string of artists have tried their hands on it, ranging from Elvis Costello to Annie Lennox, from The Animals to the Soweto Gospel Choir, or Lenny Kravitz to the Blind Boys of Alabama. Each version stressing yet another level of the song. Springsteen performed the song regularly during the later legs of his Lucky Touch tour, staying close to the Gospel feel of the song. I feel his performance of the song is as powerful as anything he's done in his own catelog, in theme and feel close to the Promised Land. Songs simply do not get much better than this.
Jimmy Cliff, who wrote and originally performed the song was one of Reggae's first stars. Many Rivers to Cross first became a hit from his debut album, later once again on the sound track for the excellent The Harder They Come film. That movie, starring Cliff as a struggling singer and drugs dealer, was the Jamaican version of the Blaxploitation genre. A good argument can be made though that the film is better than any movie from America in that genre, save maybe for Shaft (he's a baaad mother....). Loosely based on the life of Ivanhoe 'Rhyging' Martin, considered Jamaica's original Rude Boy, the harder they come is a complex anti-esthablisment film. Though Cliff chooses a life outside the law in the film, often using brutal means to get what he is after, you tend to find symphaty for his dubious choices. The corruption of Jamaica and its highly stratified society simply make it seem like Cliff has little choice but to choose the life of a Rude Boy. In a sense, the movie is Jamaica's Johnny 99.
Jimmy Cliff's debut from 1969, Hard Road to Travel, still stands as one of Reggae's land marks. Produced by the immortal Leslie Kong, it featured a bold mix between protest songs, civil rights anthems and hymns. Though the album's second single, Vietnam, failed to chart, Bob Dylan called it the best protest song ever written at the time. On the strength of Hard Road, Chris Blackwell from Island records convinced Cliff to move to England and sign with his company. Unfortunately it would prove the descicion that would land his career in the shadow of Bob Marley. Sensing the latter's potential, Island focussed most of its energy on Marley, Cliff was poorly promoted as a result there off. What didn't help his career in the US was that, when the Harder They Come album was released around 1971, the movie wouldn't follow untill four years later. So Cliff remained something of a cult figure. Cliff's is however still out there on the road and held in high regard by his peers. In 1985 he was asked by van Zandt to feature on his Sun City, his 2002 album, Fantastic Plastic People, featured duets with Annie Lennox, Sting and Joe Strummer, coming back in 2004 with a reworked version of that album, Cliff added Wycleff Jean to the fold. Today, he remains one of those must see legends, if only because he wrote one of the most moving songs of all time.
Many Rivers to Cross, Jimmy Cliff
Many Rivers to Cross, Bruce Springsteen featuring Terrence Trent D'Arby