Jimmy Cliff (YGtCTO Music #83)

Sitting in Limbo
Song written by Gully Bright and Jimmy Cliff; performed by Jimmy Cliff

I don’t know when or where I first heard the phrase “so-and-so has such a great voice that I’d be happy to hear them sing the phone book.” Perhaps it’s the sheer ridiculousness of the idea, but it has always felt like high praise indeed.

Over the years, I’ve applied the description to a few select singers, such as Van Morrison and Aaron Neville and Emmylou Harris. Like so many exclamations in the heat of the moment, the sentiment is sincere and not misplaced. I do like all their voices very much. If pressed to name favorite singers, I can spew out an honest list.

But I find more and more that I return to one voice as the one that just raises me higher- Jimmy Cliff.

Jimmy Cliff

The songs that I have cited here have more gospel than reggae to them. Perhaps that is why Cliff’s interpretations, for me, transcends all others. Of course, I don’t think I really comprehended a difference between types of music when I first heard this.

Thinking about that, I distinguish music by the apparent audience. Certain music appeared to be made for my parents. Other music was made for one brother- different music for the other one. Naturally, some music appealed to more than one of these camps. For that matter, some music seemed to appeal only to the people who lived down the street.

The other primary way that I knew certain music was different was the instrumentation. One person with a guitar meant you should expect this thing while hearing the orchestra tune meant a whole other kettle of fish. Sure, you might be able to dance to some and not to others, but I couldn’t really dance (then or now), so how could I be sure if it was me or the band?

The most interesting thing about all of this is that I couldn’t really name the style of music beyond the fact that an orchestra meant “classical” and everything else was “something else.”

I’m not really being disingenuous here. You have to be taught the different names of things. Part of that teaching often entails distinguishing our music from their music. Classification is helpful-I’m probably the last person to complain about breaking large subjects down into digestible pieces, but those pieces can become boxes that keep people out and in.

Knowledge accumulated over life can feed artistic creation. It can build a fount of wisdom. Sometimes I worry that it builds fences, as well.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 53 more to go.

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