The Harder They Come — this reggae-infused CD and the film it inspired are classics and I’m a huge fan of their creator, Jimmy Cliff. A Rolling Stone story I read recently called him “reggae’s greatest living singer” and “reggae’s first global superstar” — not bad for a poor Jamaican kid who started out with just about nothing but a love of music and once lived in a shack about the size of a shoebox.
When he was a teenager, Jimmy spent hours listening to Little Richard and to a homegrown R&B singer named Derrick Morgan on Jamaican radio. Entranced, he asked his woodworking teacher how he could write a song like the ones he was hearing every day. Jimmy recalls the teacher’s wise answer: “He said you just write it. You just write it. So I just wrote a song.”
And then he wrote some more. Once he’d written a few, the 14-year old won a scholarship to a Kingston technical school. “I had about four songs in my pocket,” Jimmy says. “And I knew this was the place to get them recorded.”
Over the past 50 years, Jimmy has gone on to write 300 songs about everything from love and gold diggers to self help, spirituality, and revolution. He’s also become a legend, not just for his silky, soulful voice, but for his poetic and zesty lyrics. In one song, By the Waters of Babylon, he took a psalm from the Bible and turned it into a beautiful and haunting lament. I’ll never forget first hearing that ballad and wondering about the artist who created it.
While it’s not surprising that Jimmy Cliff is a self-taught writer, it’s certainly inspiring. His message for us is simple: Just write it. Whatever it is you feel called to do on the wordsmithing front, just do it. Just write it. Don’t worry about whether you know enough or are polished enough. Learn by reading and listening and doing.
The more you write, the better you’ll get. The better you get, the more you’ll feel like writing, and the more you feel like it, the more motivated you’ll be to keep on writing and pushing yourself to the next level. It’s just one more example of what’s been called “the virtuous circle.” Let’s sit in the center of that circle and pour our hearts out onto the page. Write on!