“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way”
Cultural appropriation is one of the very building blocks of rock and roll music. Reprehensible and regrettable though it may be, millions of future rock and roll performers and fans would have never been inspired had Elvis Presley not taken the raunchy blues song “Hound Dog,” as written and performed by Big Mama Thornton, and turned it into the relatively tame version of the same song that became a massive hit around the world.
When the African American bombastic, theatrical and sometimes androgynous Little Richard had a hit with “Tutti Frutti” in 1955, white mainstream artist Pat Boone was quick to release a vapid cover the very next year that would be more palatable to a wider audience.
Even from just a stylistic point of view, artists like The Rolling Stones, Blondie and Rod Stewart would all release disco inspired songs in the 1970’s, a dance oriented club music first embraced by the Gay, Black and Latino communities of New York.
Sadly, when a version of an art form that was created to reflect a specific cultural tradition, and a copy of that art form is made for an audience beyond the confines of that culture, something is usually lost. Authenticity is diluted. Intimacy and familiarity is lost.
However, there are times when the cultural tradition is being honored rather than just being copied, or being made more palatable. There are times when such appropriation opens the door for people to explore music they otherwise would never have known. There are times when something truly perfect is created as a result.
Though Johnny Nash was born in Houston, TX, began singing in his family church as a child, and hoped to have a career emulating singers like Johnny Mathis and Lou Rawls, he would go on to have the first ever reggae song top the Billboard charts.
Nash enjoyed only some minor chart success during the early 1960’s, and then moved to Jamaica to make a new start. After seeing Bob Marley and the Wailers perform in concert (then, unknown outside of Jamaica), Nash became immersed in the local reggae scene, started a new record label to feature this newfound music.
With Marley as a frequent collaborator, Nash wrote several songs and made a recording in London with the Average White Band backing him. The album I Can See Clearly Now was released in 1972. The title track quickly reached the top of the charts, and went on to sell over a million copies.
Cynically, “I Can See Clearly Now” can be seen as yet another example of cultural appropriation. Nash, who did not grow up in Jamaica and had to learn reggae as a “second language” with the master Bob Marley by his side, created a reggae song of his own to make available to a much wider audience.
That may be true, but the song is just good, and it is a fine example of the mood and ethos of reggae music. From moment we hear the gentle syncopated interplay of the bass, lead guitar and percussion, we feel better. Relaxed. We are welcomed in and encouraged to adopt the sentiments of the song. Johnny Nash’s voice sounds like a crisp bell, echoing clearly and cleanly through the clouds.
” I can see clearly now, the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright, bright
Now the drums come in a little heavier and Nash’s voice is joined by others. The optimism of the first verse only becomes stronger. There is vision, and determination.
“I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin’ for
It’s gonna be a bright, bright
Lyrically, there is not much to “I Can See Clearly Now,” but there doesn’t need to be. The simple lyric is tied perfectly to the gentle music, and whenever we hear the opening notes of this song , it makes us feel better. Hearing the song, we feel relaxed, we feel happy and maybe we are feeling a little better about the day ahead.
Though reggae music is not without its angry songs and protest songs, the music often evokes the warm sun and relaxed lifestyle of warm Caribbean islands. “I Can See Clearly Now” brought reggae music to the United States. Whether this was another example of cultural appropriation or not, it paved the way for great artists such Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytalls and Jimmy Cliff.
The next reggae song to top the charts would be “I Shot the Sheriff” by Eric Clapton (covering Bob Marley) in 1974, followed by “The Tide is High” by Blondie (covering Reggae group The Paragons) in 1981. So yeah, the cultural appropriation continues
Though Nash would have a few more minor hits, he would never again experience the success of his first hit. He was 80 years old when he died of natural causes in October, 2020.
As we head into 2021 now, a year hopefully filled with new brightness and happiness, Nash’s song is all that more important and resonant. I think many of us will be singing this song to ourselves as the weeks and months of 2021 start to unfold.
Gone are the dark clouds. It’s gonna be bright, sun shiny day.
“I Can See Clearly Now”
Written and Performed by Johnny Nash
Released June 23, 1972
SPECIAL COVER RECOGNITION: “I Can See Clearly Now” has been covered dozens of times, but I have never heard a better version than by New Orleans trumpeter and vocalist Kermit Ruffins. Released not long after Hurricane Katrina decmimated New Orleans, Ruffins’ version is truly a celebration of life and resilience. Enjoy.