Reggae Turns 40 (In America, At Least)

Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" popularized reggae in America 40 years ago this month.

The Song That Put Reggae on The Map” (WSJ) features a long interview with Jimmy Cliff and his band about the 40th anniversary of raggae’s coming to America. What interested me, though, was the intro:

When the movie “The Harder They Come” opened in New York 40 years ago this month, its impact wasn’t immediately felt in the U.S. The theme song and soundtrack, however, were a different story. The album featured a compilation of singles by reggae artists as well as a catchy title song by the movie’s star—singer Jimmy Cliff. The song was quick to popularize the new Jamaican music style, giving Mr. Cliff international visibility. The film, meanwhile, became an art-house hit in college towns and big cities, exposing a generation of Americans to reggae.

A handful of U.S. hits had already featured Jamaican beats—among them Millie Small’s cover of “My Boy Lollipop” (1964), Desmond Dekker’s “The Israelites,” the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (1968) and Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” (1972). But the springy rhythms of “The Harder They Come” opened the door for a new wave that influenced rock, soul and punk, from Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” to the Police’s “Roxanne.”

I was 7 at the time and my parents were country music fans, so I didn’t experience any of this contemporaneously. I first became consciously aware of the reggae form with Blondie’s “The Tide is High” cover in 1980 and retrospectively came to understand that “I Shot the Sheriff” was a reggae song. Indeed, when I saw the WSJ’s Twitter teaser for the article, “The 40-year-old song that put reggae on the map,” I naturally assumed Eric Clapton’s version of Bob Marley’s classic was the song. I was of course aware of Jimmy Cliff, although much later, but didn’t realize his role in popularizing the medium.

Additionally–and what prompted me to post to begin with–is that I would never have pegged ”Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”  or “Mother and Child Reunion,” the only of the pre-“The Harder they Come” songs mentioned that I’m familar with–as reggae inspired. I can see it now that it’s been pointed out to me, but it would never have occurred to me on my own.

At any rate, here’s Cliff’s classic:

FILED UNDER: Policing, Popular Culture, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stonetools says:

    Respect for Jimmy Cliff. Reggae moved on to breaking out all over the world, thanks to Jimmy and many others.
    As someone who’s Jamaican-born, I feel very proud of the little island with the big sound.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    If you go back and listen to the entire album (The Harder They Come) you see just how many great songs there were, including two of my favorites, Rivers of Babylon and Pressure Drop that are considered among the greatest reggae songs ever. There was life before Bob Marley though of course he came to dominate as a creative genius and symbol.

    Nevertheless, I’m with James:

    Additionally–and what prompted me to post to begin with–is that I would never have pegged ”Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or “Mother and Child Reunion,” the only of the pre-”The Harder they Come” songs mentioned that I’m familar with–as reggae inspired. I can see it now that it’s been pointed out to me, but it would never have occurred to me on my own.

  3. Rafer Janders says:

    Irie, James. Respec’ fa puttin’ up dis post an remindin’ us all a da great Jimmy Cliff’s achievement.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    It goes back a little further than 40 years …
    I remember an AM radio hit from 1968 or so,
    by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, “The Israelites”

  5. al-Ameda says:

    oops, my bad James … you called it out.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    Desmond Dekker had an influence on later music as well. Punk picked up a lot of reggae and dance hall. Here’s a lyrical shout-out from Rancid:

    The radio was playin’ Desmond Dekker was singin’
    On the 43 bus as we climb up the hill
    Nothin’ incoming but the reggae drummin’,
    And we all come from unloving homes.
    (I said) “Why even bother” and I pick up the bottle
    Mr. bus driver please let these people on
    Rude girl Carol was a mini-skirt girl
    My blurry vision saw nothin’ wrong.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    “the Harder They Come” is still one of my few Reggae albums. It always brings a smile to my face when one of the songs shuffles to the top of the playlist.

  8. M. Bouffant says:

    Annette Funicelllo recorded a number called “Jamaica Ska” for a 1964 album (probably due to the success of “My Boy Lollipop”) but it wasn’t a hit.

    And while this proves little beyond how old I am, my first exposure to the sounds of JA was from Brits while in Paris in 1969. Loved it when I first heard it & haven’t stopped.

  9. roger says:

    My true introduction to reggae was one Friday night in 1980 or 1981 while channel surfing. Stumbled upon some pre-MTV music videos and one of them was “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police.

    I’ve been a Paul Simon fan for longer than that but until I read this article, would never have pegged “Mother And Child Reunion” as a reggae inspired tune. Just had a listen. Yep, the reggae elements are there. Always paid attention to an interview with Simon where he explained the song was inspired by a chicken and egg dish at a Chinese restaurant called “Mother and Child Reunion” and part of the lyrics being about the loss of his dog.

    Bright and sunny but cold day here but it certainly feels like a day to play some Cliff, Tosh, Marley tunes.