This is the music that really made Jimmy Cliff a star. All the songs were recorded prior to 1970. A few years before audiences watched his film character Ivanhoe Martin driven to gun-toting rude-boy desperation in The Harder They Come, he had already written and recorded two of the songs that were incorporated into the film. Those are included here, his hymn of struggling through disappointment, “Many Rivers to Cross” and his hopeful “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” Jimmy’s prominent style has been described as glad-to-be-alive music. He is nearly evangelical when singing “Bongo Man” and “Sufferin’ in the Land.” Just listening to him on this record, it’s easy to believe he genuinely wants all people within the sound of his voice to be freed from suffering and their hard lot in life. In making that large wish for them, he can imagine and share their sorrows.
I probably shouldn’t talk about this song, because nobody wants to hear about the war. “Viet Nam” is described by some critics as an “anthem” by which I suspect means a song that everyone recognizes. Another writer said Bob Dylan called this the most perfect protest song ever written. The song was first released in 1969. Though I can’t exactly recall when I first heard the song, I do remember seeing the title was spelled “Vetnam” on the first copy of the record I saw. Everybody knew what they meant, and even the misspelling seemed some kind of Freudian slip or an unconscious hope that the war would soon end, soldiery returning to their homes and being promoted to the status of veterans.
The story of the song is a simple and straightforward vehicle, letters crossing in the mail. A soldier in Viet Nam writes home to his friends to remind them his tour of duty was about to end and he would be home soon. He especially asked them to tell his sweetheart of his love for her. The day after his friends receive that letter from him, his mother receives an official telegram saying her son has been killed in Viet Nam. Throughout the song, there’s the continual use of a percussion instrument common to Latin and reggae. The instrument has a ratcheting metallic sound, something like the noisemakers that kids use at Halloween. In regular musical use, the instrument is used only occasionally as a rhythm accent, assisting in giving an upbeat to numbers. But in this song it is in perpetual use. I tried a number of sources, but I still don’t know what that instrument is called. Although this can be a noisy instrument, while given continual emphasis here it appears in a “soft” mix in the background, one that implies distance. Given the context of the song, the sound of the instrument here conjures up images of helicopters for me, one of the most consistent visual themes in news coverage of the war. Viet Nam has been described as the first helicopter war. While it’s true that the helicopter was used for reconnaissance and maneuver of troops, the helicopter was heavily used in Viet Nam for rescue and evacuation of wounded personnel.
I consider this to be the best Jimmy Cliff record, and not just because “Viet Nam” is included, as that has made an appearance elsewhere. Although I appreciate he understood and communicated that Viet Nam had a major impact on every corner of American society. That’s in part because wars are fought by human beings who we might know and love or by even strangers who we happen to sit behind at the theater.