During these troubled times, revisiting one of reggae's prodigal sons is apropos given the parallel that is sometimes drawn between Viet Nam and Iraq. Jimmy Cliff introduced Americans to reggae music, and it's partly thanks to him that even today a good percentage of college dorms features a poster of Bob Marley.
Listening to Cliff as elections near and the death toll mounts in Iraq, whether it's "Many Rivers To Cross" or "Sooner Or Later", his lyrics connect in a new way in 2004. When pictures of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners stunned the nation, when a grief-stricken father set fire to a Marine Corps vehicle and himself upon learning his son died in Iraq, when thousands of people took to the streets of New York to protest the war, when Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 proved the most successful documentary ever, certain protest songs can be heard in a new way instead of merely being 60's relics.
The lyrics of "Viet Nam" don't quite console but they do reverberate. "It was just the next day his mother got a telegram/It was addressed from Vietnam…. Don't be alarmed, she told me the telegram said/ But Mistress Brown your son is dead/And it came from Vietnam." As more soldiers die and we see that "Mission Impossible" is more apt than "Mission Accomplished", Cliff was able to portray grief and despair in a way in the 1970's that hasn't been heard yet on MTV.
But far from only including the anthems of struggle and injustice, the joy of Jimmy Cliff's music resonates here as well, from "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" to the lovely fervor of "Come Into My Life". And with the African, almost samba-like Brazilian rhythms of "Bongo Man", one also gets a hint of whom renaissance man Manu Chao may have been influenced by.
Fans of Cliff's best-loved songs won't be disappointed here. Classics like "You Can Get It If You Really Want" and "The Harder They Come" strengthen the collection, and it never hurts to revisit the poignant "Sitting in Limbo". Cliff's version of Cat Stevens' "Wild World' is particularly beautiful.
In highly charged political times, Jimmy Cliff's reggae rhythms relax the body while his lyrics keep the mind sharp.