Paul Simon – Graceland

I enjoyed this song and album when it was released. It was somewhat of a comeback for Simon. I traveled to Graceland the same year it was released for the first time. I got ignored by the guide. It was 1987 and the guide brought up the Beatles and I asked a question about it…I cannot remember the question. The second question I asked was about Bruce Springsteen…how he supposedly climbed the gate to give Elvis the song “Fire” but Elvis wasn’t at home. She finally asked..do we have any more questions…and looked at me…” about Elvis?” I shook my head no and continued…

Part of this song is an account of Paul Simon’s marriage breakup with his first wife Peggy Harper. The nine-year-old “traveling companion” he refers to is their son Harper, who three years later, at the age of 12, accompanied his father on the Graceland tour. Harper Simon, born in 1972, developed into a singer-songwriter.

The song only charted at #81 in the Billboard 100 in 1987…which is surprising to me now. It got a lot of airplay at the time.

At first, Simon considered the word “Graceland” a placeholder title until he could come up with something better – maybe something that had to do with Africa. After a while, he realized the title wasn’t going away, and he got comfortable with it.

Paul Simon: “I couldn’t replace it. I thought, Maybe I’m supposed to go to Graceland. Maybe I’m supposed to go on a trip and see what I’m writing about, and I did.”

Paul Simon: “The track has a beautiful emptiness to it. That’s what made me think of Sun Records when it was nothing but slapback echo and the song.”

From Songfacts

Graceland is the mansion in Memphis, Tennessee where Elvis Presley lived; it is where Elvis is buried, and it is now a museum and popular tourist attraction. Paul Simon started calling his song “Graceland” after he came up with the track, which reminded him of the Sun Records sound where Elvis recorded.

Simon says this song is an example of “how a collaboration works even when you’re not aware of it occurring.” He traveled to South Africa in February 1985 and recorded with a variety of local musicians. One of these sessions was with an accordion player named Forere Motloheloa, who played on the song “The Boy in the Bubble.” These sessions produced a drum sound that Simon liked, which he described in the 2012 Graceland reissue: “The drums were kind of a traveling rhythm in country music – I’m a big Sun Records fan, and early-’50s, mid-’50s Sun Records you hear that beat a lot, like a fast, Johnny Cash type of rhythm.”

Simon put together a rhythm section comprised of three African musicians: guitarist Ray Phiri, fretless bass player Baghiti Khumalo, and drummer Isaac Mtshali. Simon played the drums for Phiri, and asked him to play something over it. Phiri started to play his version of American Country on electric guitar, which were chords not frequently used in African music: minor chords. When Simon asked him why he played that, Phiri responded, “I was just imitating the way you write.”

With Phiri playing his approximation of Amercian country, and Baghiti playing a straight ahead African groove on bass, Simon felt there was a commonality in the music, and he wrote a lyric to express that.

Simon describes that trip in the song; he drove to Graceland from Louisiana on Route 61, and the lyrics were his thoughts of the countryside: “The Mississippi Delta is shining like a National guitar.” When he finally got to Graceland, he took the famous tour.

This is the title track of Simon’s most successful album, selling over 15 million copies and winning a Grammy for Album of the Year. It is an album focusing mostly on African music, but it also explores other forms of non-mainstream music, like Zydeco. Simon considers this song to be less African-sounding than most of the other African-based tracks. The single also won Simon his third Record of the Year award – he previously won for “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Paul Simon’s visit to South Africa was no easy task, as many nations were boycotting the country because of their racist apartheid policy. However, the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee supported his efforts since he only recorded with black South African musicians and did not collaborate with the government in any way. This didn’t appease some critics, who felt that violating sanctions undermined efforts to effect change in the country, no matter his artistic intentions. Ultimately, the Graceland project helped raise awareness to the apartheid struggle and expose many South African musicians to a global audience. The sanctions were put in place mainly to prevent entertainers from performing lucrative gigs at the Sun City resort, and Simon did nothing to support the corrupt government there.

Regarding the lyrics, “There’s a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline,” Simon explained to SongTalk magazine: “That line came to me when I was walking past the Museum of Natural History. For no reason, I can think of. It’s not related to anybody. Or anything. It just struck me as funny. Although that’s an image that people remember, they talk about that line. But really, what interested me was the next line, because I was using the word ‘Graceland’ but it wasn’t in the chorus. I was bringing ‘Graceland’ back into a verse. Which is one of the things I learned from African music: the recapitulation of themes can come in different places.”

Explaining the World Music component of this song in the album reissue, Simon explained: “The part of me that had ‘Graceland’ in my head I think was subconsciously reacting to what I first heard in the drums, which was some kind of Sun Records/country/blues amalgam. What Ray was doing was mixing up his aural recollections of what American country was and what kind of chord changes I played. So the whole song really is one sound evoking a response, and that eventually became a lyric that instead of being about a South African subject or a political subject, it became a traveling song. That’s really the secret of World Music is that people are able to listen to each other, made associations, and play their own music that sounds like it fits into another culture.”

Several months after the initial recording sessions, Nigerian pedal steel guitarist Demola Adepoju was added to the track. This added a sound familiar to both American and African music, as the pedal steel guitar is a popular instrument in West Africa.

This song has stood the test of time, but when it was released as a single, it only charted at #82 in the US and didn’t crack the charts in the UK. It didn’t fit neatly into any radio formats like “You Can Call Me Al,” so it lacked hit potential. It did find an audience as part of the album, which went to #1 in the UK and stayed on the charts for nearly two years. In America, the album peaked at #3 but stayed on the chart for 97 weeks.

Don and Phil Everly of the Everly Brother sang backup on this track. Paul Simon and his musical partner Art Garfunkel idolized the Everlys and recorded their song “Bye Bye Love” for their Bridge Over Troubled Water album. Simon said he heard “Graceland” as “a perfect Everly Brothers song.”

In a 1993 interview on Larry King Live, Simon said this was his favorite song.

The B-side of the single was “Hearts And Bones,” which can be found on the album of the same name, released three years prior to Graceland.

Simon’s second wife, Carrie Fisher, was the topic of some of the songs on his 1983 Hearts and Bones album, including the title track. They got married that year, divorced a year later, but kept an on-and-off relationship throughout the ’80s. Fisher told Rolling Stone, “‘Graceland’ has part of us in it.”

Graceland

The Mississippi Delta
was shining like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war

I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland

My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said, “losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow”

I’m going to Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland

And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I’m looking at ghosts and empties
But I’ve reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
“Whoa, so this is what she means”
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Well, everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

Ooh, ooh, ooh
In Graceland, in Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see
Graceland
And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

Whoa, oh, oh
In Graceland, in Graceland, in Graceland
I’m going to Graceland

Author: badfinger20

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

36 thoughts on “Paul Simon – Graceland”

    1. He was for a little while in the 80s. Lucky man at that time.
      I know right? They were frustrated because of the non Elvis questions. I wish I could remember the Beatles question.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s not like his resume isn’t a mile long…whats a few more credits…I totally agree…greed. I’m not sure if it is all greed or ego…or a mixture between the two.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a good question. To have more to point the finger at. It’s a shame also because he is a very talented guy…sharing a little would not have hurt his reputation at all…in fact as we have seen…it would have helped.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Well, at least you saw Graceland, that’s something… do you think the guide was rude because he wanted to avoid any light on anyone but elvis or just because he only knew answers about Elvis?
    I’ve been a long time Paul simon fan, but gotta admit back then the ‘Graceland’ album didn’t grab me one little bit. But I thought this was the best track on it, and overall my impression of the album has improved since then… but I still think it’s the best song of the work. Odd thing was that it got a whole lot of airplay on the “Alt rock” station in toronto which usually eschewed anything by him or any of his contemporaries from the early-’70s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Boy in the Bubble is the one I really went for…You Can Call Me Al was huge…or was played a lot where I was. The video with Chevy helped it.
      I think the guide just wanted to stick to Elvis because of lack of knowledge. Also I saw a smirk…like this is about Elvis not about those people…but I could be wrong.

      I’ve went twice or three times. Now you don’t have guides…they just give you a player and headphones and you walk along and it tells you info.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved the Graceland album when it a=came out and am surprised the song made it to only #81 in the Billboard 100 in 1987. Of course, at that time it was very trendy to be enthusiastic about everything African because of Mandela and Sth Africa etc etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised when I looked it up. I didn’t think it was the biggest hit but I thought top 40 anyway with the airplay it got where I’m at.

      He caught a lot of hell for going over there and with the cultural boycott. The musicians wanted him to come. I guess it turned out good for the awareness factor…I’ve never been an expert on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I assumed this was more about Carrie Fisher than his first wife. On Hearts and Bones, his previous record, there’s a song clearly about Pegi (Train in the Distance) and one about Fisher (Hearts and Bones).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know I saw so many quotes about both it was hard. Carrie and him were off and on so much through this time after their divorce.
      Have you heard much of Harper Simon’s music? I like what I’ve heard.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I saw a documentary on him somewhere and I pulled up some songs. I haven’t listened to full albums but two off the top of my head are Wishes and Stars and Berkeley Girl…there is no doubt who influenced him.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved that song and album when it came out and still do, though I haven’t listened to it for quite some time.

    I think the blending of traditional African and Western pop music is brilliant. Best of all, I was fortunate to see all of it live in Germany during Simon’s supporting tour – hands down one of the best concerts I’ve been to. And without meaning to brag, I’ve been to some!

    The show was divided in three parts. One featured only African musicians playing traditional music. Seeing these guys stomping, clapping and singing with relatively little instrumentation and watching the joy they were having while doing their thing was priceless!

    The main part featured Simon together with these musicians. I think they played the entire Graceland album and then some.

    The third part was Simon solo just with his guitar. If I recall it correctly, it was relatively short. When he played The Boxer, it felt like a near-magical moment!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m envious…wish I could have seen him on that tour. What you described sounds great. I’ve seen some video of that tour…looks wonderful.

      I saw him on the next tour with the the Rhythm of the Saints album. He did have some of the Graceland musicians but not all I don’t believe.

      He did some solo acoustic during that show also. I saw him later on touring with Bob Dylan…the most magical part for me was when Paul and Bob did a duet on Sound of Silence.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Funny story about the Graceland tour. She probably didn’t know the answers so went on the offensive. First time hearing this song, or the 15 seconds of it that I heard to today. Not my cup of tea.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Rude guide but, yeah, she probably couldn’t answer your question(s). Instead of admitting that, she side-stepped you.

    I just vaguely remember this song. I vaguely remember he & Fisher being married. I do remember thinking it was an odd pairing. They were on and off for years. She had a struggle in life with Debbie as a mom.

    The link, above, regarding Los Lobos…not surprised…at all. Maybe he is a nicer guy as a husband and father. He and Edie are still together. But, biz wise, he is a d***.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She looked preturbed because I was asking about The Beatles and Bruce instead of Elvis. Some Elvis fans have a guard against the Beatles…so I push those buttons.

      I really liked Debbie…she saved a lot of Hollywood history…as you know. Yea Simon was no walk in the park but I’m sure Carrie wasn’t either with her drug problems at the time.

      I don’t understand why he would do that…it’s not like he doesn’t have credits like crazy.

      Like

      1. Power…control…the usual suspects.

        Debbie would have been a hard act to follow as a mom. Plus, she had her own issues. But, considering they died within 24 of each other, they were close, despite their issues.

        Liked by 1 person

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