The Perfect Improvisation of “The Harder They Come”

I carried that folded-up newspaper clipping in my wallet. Over time, the creases became deep and sharply defined. The paper yellowed, and the edges wore. It had become a personal and sacred piece of parchment. Placed ever so carefully between credit cards and photos, I had it with me where ever I went. For at least five years, that list was my guide; my teacher; my historian.

Published in the back of the arts section of the Chicago Tribune, or maybe it was the Washington Post (I’m not sure), I found a list of the 100 greatest rock and roll albums of all time. It was the late 1980’s, and even at the time I thought there were a few suspect choices included. Private Dancer by Tina Turner? Can’t Slow Down by Lionel Richie?

But interspersed with those suspect musical choices, I found a list of nuggets, a collection of challenges. Of course Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was at the top of the list, with well-worn and well-known classics by The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder not far behind.

There was also Shoot Out the Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson, Grievous Angel by Gram Parson and There’s a Riot Going On by Sly and the Family Stone. Strange albums by diverse artists completely foreign to me. Maybe I had never heard of that artist before, or maybe I had only heard their biggest hit and never dug deeper. Judging by this list, I clearly had a lot of interesting albums to buy, and a lot of great music to listen to. I dove right in. There was much to learn. I would go to the record store, and carefully pull the list of great albums out my wallet. I would gingerly unfold the quickly deteriorating document, and see what was of interest, and what I could find at the store. Then, after making my purchase, back in the wallet the list would go, conveniently ready to guide me on my next listening adventure.

One particularly mysterious entry was the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come. I had yet to connect to reggae music in any kind of meaningful way. I had heard about Peter Tosh. I listened to a couple of Bob Marley songs, but whole genre remained a mystery.

Starring Jimmy Cliff, one of the biggest reggae stars of the day, the plot of The Harder They Come focuses on a young reggae musician with dreams of fame and fortune, only to be dragged into a life of drugs and crime.

After leaving the cash register with CD in hand, I proudly checked off yet another great album that was now in my collection. To this day, I still have not seen the movie, but the soundtrack is something special (don’t give me a hard time, I’ll get to it sometime. Maybe.).

For some reason, I imagined music that would be dark and moody to match a movie about crime and drugs. Boy, was I wrong.

The title track begins with a brief drum intro, soon joined by a bright jangly guitar and a passionate Hammond B-3 organ. Right away we hear Cliff’s beautiful, shimmering voice singing “oohs” and “aahs” followed by the first verse.

Well, they tell me of a pie up in the sky
Waiting for me when I die
But between the day you’re born and when you die
They never seem to hear even your cry
.”

Propelled by a perfectly, jaunty reggae beat, Cliff sounds much happier than the lyrics might suggest. How could you not sound happy? This is great music! In a pristine case of art imitating life, it is easy to imagine that that Jimmy Cliff experienced hardships and challenges as he tried to carve out a musical career for himself. These lyrics must tell that story.

So as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine
And then the harder they come
The harder they fall, one and all
Ooh, the harder they come
The harder they fall, one and all
.”

I always knew that Jimmy Cliff wrote this song, but what I did know until researching for this article is that all the lyrics were improvised in the studio as the song was recorded.

Not. Too. Shabby.

Well, the oppressors are trying to keep me down
Trying to drive me underground
And they think that they have got the battle won
I say forgive them Lord, they know not what they’ve done
.”

Somehow, Cliff creates a cohesive, beautiful message as he makes up the lyrics on the spot. Everybody who is treating him poorly. Everybody who is getting in the way of his success. Everybody who thinks they are winning while he is losing. He responds not with anger, but rather with forgiveness, and a promise that he will succeed.

“‘Cause, as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine
And then the harder they come
The harder they fall, one and all
Ooh, the harder they come
Harder they fall, one and all
.”

He will keep on fighting, now only for the things he wants, but also the things he needs. The time to fight is now, because by the time you are in the grave, the fight is over. He could have spent weeks and weeks on these lyrics, and they would not have been nearly as poignant and salient.

And I keep on fighting for the things I want
Though I know that when you’re dead you can’t
But I’d rather be a free man in my grave
Than living as a puppet or a slave
.”

And even better, The Harder The Come is far from the only great song on the album. “Pressure Drop,” the amazing lung buster by The Maytals featuring the great, great Toots Hibbert. “Rivers of Babylon,” a Jewish reggae song if there ever was one, by The Melodians. “Draw Your Brakes” by Scotty. There are more classics by Jimmy Cliff and others, literally paving the way for great artists like Bob Marley and others to walk down the reggae path they had so beautifully laid out.

So as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine
And then the harder they come
The harder they fall, one and all
.”



The Harder They Come
Written and Performed by Jimmy Cliff
Released 1972

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