What: Jimmy Cliff’s soul-striking 1969 ballad “Many Rivers to Cross.” Here is the studio recording from the soundtrack of the 1972 film The Harder They Come, but it needs to be heard live, as in this 1989 Greenpeace benefit performance:

Why: A smooth blend of calypso, gospel, and ganja haze, reggae kicked onto the world scene with the soundtrack to the Jamaican gangster film The Harder They Come, a contender for best soundtrack ever. (It’s not, though. I’ll get to that.) It featured Cliff’s anthemic title track and the infectious “Sitting in Limbo”, the original versions of “Pressure Drop” and “Johnny Too Bad”, and enough soon-to-be-classics to fill a UB40 tribute album. Floating above them all was the film’s star singing “Many Rivers to Cross,” a mirror of his character’s battles with poverty and crime. Fueled by a Procol Harum-style organ, the song fuses reggae and the spiritual like no other, battering the lost and lonely narrator like the waves off the white cliffs of Dover. He might make it across those rivers, and he might not. But he will try, Lord, he will try.

Impact: “Many Rivers to Cross” became Cliff’s signature song, and a favorite of pop singers seeking a touch of gravitas. Covers by Cher and UB40 hit the pop charts; others include Elvis Costello, Lenny Kravitz, and a recent American Idol version by Annie Lennox. It’s a voice-wrecking song, so it helps if you’ve already done so. Some four decades later, the song remains rock’s most anguished declaration of hope.

Personal Connection: The Harder They Come easily holds the record for my personal longest gap between owning a film’s soundtrack and seeing the film. Yes, I mean that direction. I had the album at age 6, hardly a good age to be watching a film about drug trafficking and gangster hooliganism. After a 35-year delay, I saw the film for the first time about a year ago, and was impressed by how real it felt. (I was slightly less impressed by the realism of the song’s namesake, the 1955 western comedy Many Rivers to Cross, starring Robert Taylor as “Bushrod Gentry.” But even the most epic songs have to get their inspiration from somewhere.)

Other Contenders: “The Guns of Brixton”, The Clash’s incendiary call to violence inspired by The Harder They Come; Bob Marley’s plaintive “Redemption Song”; UB40’s horn-propelled instrumental foot-stomper, “Dance with the Devil”; The Beat’s ska-pop swirl of “Save It for Later”; the sweet rocksteady lope of The Paragons’ “Wear You to the Ball”; Paul Young‘s pop cover of Nicky Thomas‘ reggae cover of Waylon Jennings‘ folk song “Love of the Common People”; Michael Franti & Spearhead’s not-highly-metaphysical dancehall hug, “Say Hey (I Love You)” (also good with puppets).