Jimmy Cliff Stephen Davis - Essay

Stephen Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Cliff's masterpiece is] "Many Rivers to Cross," a profoundly emotional epic ballad about depression and getting started again after a bad time. The song was typical Cliff; wretchedness and desolation putting on a good face and trying to look to the future….

[His] low-key but very forceful protest, "Vietnam," was … much more rock and roll than reggae. A devastating antiwar polemic in the form of a letter to a mother telling of her son's death in Vietnam, the song was too honest and tough to be popular beyond the tiny Cliff cult. (p. 84)

Jimmy Cliff is the most misunderstood of the reggae masters. He has been vilified for abandoning his roots and the Jamaican styles that nourished him. His songs continually have described the hunger of a young man trying to assert himself in the face of prejudice and villainy. His stance is self-reliance and independence, and for those qualities he occasionally incurs the wrath of the crowd. In Jamaica, Cliff is respected as an artist who opened doors for reggae that might otherwise have remained shut. Others contend that Cliff moved to England so long ago he's lost contact. Critics point to the smoothness of some of his recent records, anathema to the fundamentally raw reggae sensibility. (p. 85)

Stephen Davis, "Three Reggae Masters," in his Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica (copyright © 1977 by Stephen Davis; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), revised edition, Anchor Press, 1979, pp. 83-97.∗