Ayuh Music: Paul Simon’s “Graceland”

Okay, I should confess here that I do not care for Paul Simon very much: I think he’s kind of a dick, and his music is uninteresting. I 95% abhor Simon and Garfunkel; they just do nothing for me, and they soundtracked the awful The Graduate, which they will have to atone for someday (perhaps Art already is). But (as Opifex recently pointed out) there is one album that all ’80s babies know by heart, and that album is Paul Simon’s Graceland.

I’ve mentioned here before the excellent article I Hate World Music by my hero David Byrne, in which he discusses the steep Western bias in the marketing of popular music and the marginalization of artists recording in different languages or on different continents than North America (and Britain). On Graceland, Paul Simon featured a group of incredible vocal artists from South Africa, the luminous Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and in doing so, became one of the first English-language albums to incorporate sounds widely foreign to the average rock-and-pop-raised listener. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, founded by Joseph Shabalala in 1964 following a series of prophetic dreams, is a South African recording group making music called isicathamiya, which Wikipedia tells me is the traditional music of the Zulu people. In 1986, when Graceland was released, there was a cultural boycott against South Africa in protest of its apartheid regime, and many people accused Simon of breaking this boycott in order to make his record. Thankfully, people soon realized what utter bullshit that was, and Graceland went on to win both Record and Album of the Year at the Grammys.

Hooray!

The record helped launch Ladysmith Black Mambazo into international view – including an appearance on Sesame Street where they sang the alphabet, remember that?! – and brought attention to the creative community of black African artists working in South Africa at the time, even if the country’s regime made it difficult to experience that art. Even the little-heard native languages of the country were on display on Graceland. Many lyric passages on Graceland are bilingual, making use of Zulu words as well as English ones – particularly the introduction to the longest track on the album, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.”

And I can say ooh ooh ooh oooh ooh oooh ooh ooh ooh oooooooooooooooooooh. If you were born between 1980 and 1990, this cassette was in your car, and your dad played it until the tape wore out. My brother used to dance in his car seat to this album, flailing his fat little legs around until he fell asleep. The music is made for gettin’ down: nearly all of these songs have beats you can dance to, some more than others, but none better than the trumpeting, synth-heavy “You Can Call Me Al,” which was my special song with my mother when I was a little girl (her name is Betty, my name is… well, you can see where this is going). Remember seeing this video on the TV?

(Incidentally, this is the best thing Chevy Chase has ever done.)

Thematically – is it about being lost, foreign, a traveler? Is that what makes Graceland pair so perfectly with long journeys? Did I pick up on this, even as a small child, as Simon sang on the title track that “the Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar, and I am following the river down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War, going to see Graceland.” The lyrics involve pilgrimages, wanderings, unfamiliar settings: whether it’s the singer himself driving to Elvis’s mansion-turned-mausoleum in “Graceland,” the traveling salesman meeting the love of his life in Lafayette, Louisiana in “That Was Your Mother,” or Fat Charlie the archangel and his fall from grace in “Crazy Love vol. II,” every character on this album is restless and unable to hold still. Everybody’s on the move, whether in the American south or under African skies, and their journeys are the backbone of all these songs. (When I was little and I didn’t know Graceland was a real place, I thought it meant Heaven.)

I probably don’t need to say much more about Graceland – and that’s a wonderful thing, that we all seem to have heard of it, even tangentially. It’s such an important album because it fuses a then-maligned corner of the world – and the great artistic tradition that corner had to offer – with an incredibly successful songwriter/performer as the perfect vehicle. Graceland changed the world of music by showing the public that “world music” was not a niche market; it was something that anybody could groove to and love, without even having to try that hard. When you listen to Graceland, do you separate out the different strands – the Western horns and synths, the isicathamiya rhythms, the zydeco washboards, the American folk – or is it just music?

 

And finally, because I love it so much, here’s Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing the alphabet.

If that doesn’t make you happy, nothing will. Especially that guy making a G noise.

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Dr. Song

Dr Song is an archaeologist, in exile from the great state of Maine. Her life motto is "Hold fast." Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dr__song

16 thoughts on “Ayuh Music: Paul Simon’s “Graceland””

  1. I have always loved Simon and Garfunkel and Paul Simon, but it took until I was 12 or 13 for my best friend and I to discover Paul Simon’s solo work and Graceland.  For some reason my parents just weren’t into it.  We discovered Graceland around the same time we (my friend more than me though) were getting really in to the Beatles.  I remember spending essentially an entire summer sitting around in various bedrooms (hers, mine, guest bedroom at my grandparents’, etc.) talking, drawing on ourselves (that was a thing with us,) and listening to Paul Simon and the Beatles.  I love this album so much, and I’ve never been able to extricate it from memories from her.

    Incidentally, I’m leaving on a weekend road trip tonight, and we’re spending the first night at her house…so you can guess what I’ll be listening to for the first leg of the trip!

  2. I was born late 80’s, and my dad is slightly older than most of my age-peers’ dads, so I guess it makes sense that he played Graceland A LOT when I was growing up (and that many of my friends are not so familiar with it). I love it, and it is also very nostalgic. And yes, major dance parties around the house/kitchen (it was one of my dad’s favourite albums to put on while cooking or baking). But I have to say, I also really like Simon and Garfunkel, which he also played a lot. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, maybe it’s the fact that I love harmonizing voices, I don’t know… I don’t listen to them as much now that I’ve moved out of home, but occasionally they’ll make their way onto my playlist and I really like them.

    1. I like Simon and Garfunkel too. Except for “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. I hate that song. I hate that song so much. And I do not know why. But “The Boxer,” “My Little Town,” and “America” are some of my favorite belt out in the car songs.

  3. My parents were far more into what my brother and I called “Simon and Garfunkie” and we LOATHED the music. In college, though, I developed a fondess for the duo I can’t really explain.

    and I like Paul Simon’s solo stuff. Graceland, however, is an earworm that I can’t shake once it starts. For reals. Or if I do shake it, it alternates with “Walking in Memphis” which slowly puts me over the edge. Gah!

     

    1. aw sonofa . . . now here i go:

      “Muriel plays piano, every Friday at the Hollywood.  And they brought me down to see her, and they asked me if I would . . . . DO A LITTLE NUMBER and I sang with all my might.  She said, “Tell me are are you a Christian child and I said . . . MA’AM I AM TONIGHT.”

      Thanks loads, that’s three days worth of earworm you’ve given me.

      1. Wheeeeeel when that gets tiered you can switch over to this:

        “There is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline. And sometimes when I’m falling, flying, tumbling in turmoil I say, ‘Whoa so this is what she means.’ She means we’re bouncing into Graceland.”

  4. Aaaaaaaaaah I am a child of the 80’s, and I totally grew up with my dead playing a tape of Graceland whenever we went somewhere reasonably far away.  (I think this was at least partially because it was one of the few musical things my parents could agree on, but whatever, it counts).  I have a deep and unabashed love for Graceland, and I don’t care how cliché or everyone-who-was-a-kid-in-the-80’s-feels-that-way-about-it it is.  SO GOOD.

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