In 1969 the young Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff was going through one of the lowest points in his life. Having moved to the UK, after having some success in Jamaica as a singer, Jimmy Cliff could not catch a break in his new prospects. England was not kind to him as he struggled his way through performing small gigs in pubs and clubs waiting for a break. And this struggle fueled one of his most iconic songs “Many Rivers to Cross,” ironically, one that would aid in overcoming his troubles.
“Many Rivers to Cross” was released as a single off of Jimmy Cliff’s self-titled album in 1969. Although the song did not gain much commercial success initially, over the years, the song has achieved ‘immortal’ status in music. The Rolling Stone magazine listed the song at #325 on their list of ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time.’ Also, countless artists have covered the song since. most prominently John Lennon, UB40, Annie Lennox, Oleta Adams, Bryan Adams, Cher, and more.
Speaking with The Telegraph, Jimmy Cliff explained the inspiration, or rather the motivation behind “Many Rivers to Cross”; “When I came to the UK, I was still in my teens. I came full of vigor: I’m going to make it, I’m going to be up there with the Beatles and the Stones. And it wasn’t really going like that, I was touring clubs, not breaking through. I was struggling, with work, life, my identity, I couldn’t find my place; frustration fueled the song.”
Listen to “Many Rivers to Cross” by Jimmy Cliff
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“Many Rivers to Cross” Lyrics Meaning and Song Review
The phrase ‘many rivers to cross’ is a metaphor for the countless decisions we all humans encounter during our walks of life. Jimmy Cliff had quite a few exciting life choices in front of him at a very young age. And he chose one that he thought would the best for his future–moving to the United Kingdom. However, not all rivers are meant to be smooth sailing. And Jimmy Cliff experienced it first hand.
Jimmy Cliff also mentions ‘The white cliffs of Dover’ as something he encounters along his journeys. These infamous cliffs are located in Kent, England.
When traversing these troubled waters, Jimmy Cliff realizes that it’s only his power of will that keeps him pushing through. And the one other thing that kept him afloat was his ‘pride.’ The willpower and pride can be a double-edged sword. Whilst those can give you enough hope to cling on if things do not work out, the same can backfire to be quite devastating.
Jimmy Cliff wrote this song when he was a mere 21-years-old. And he sings that he has been “washed up for years.” This does make sense considering that Jimmy did start his musical journey at the age of 14 in Jamaica. His major hit was “Hurricane Hattie” at the age of 14. Jimmy did find some success in his homeland but he goes as far as to compare all that success to being ‘washed up’ compared to what he had in mind for himself in the United Kingdom.
Watch Jimmy Cliff Perform “Many Rivers to Cross” Live in 2003
Next, Jimmy Cliff goes on to talk about more pitfalls in his life–“My woman left and she didn’t say why.” This might not be factual, but it did not stop him from pouring his soul into these lyrics. He draws a picture of a man with big dreams but resorted to being a man next to nothing. And such trying times make a man think of the most uncommon means of survival: “committing some dreadful crime.”
But, fortunately for Jimmy Cliff and also for us, he did get his break soon after this song. The song “Many Rivers to Cross” was included in the soundtrack for the 1972 movie ‘The Harder They Come‘ in which Jimmy Cliff himself starred as the lead role.
In 2008, a cover version by Annie Lennox helped propel the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time ever.
Let us hear what you think about this song and how you relate to the lyrics in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.