Graceland Revisited

Paul Simon, Graceland, Iggy Azalea, Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Luise Gubb, photo courtesy of
Luise Gubb, photo courtesy of                                                  

When I was a little kid in the late 1980s, my mother had a few albums on tape that she listened to as we ran errands. I enjoy all of them, although some have had greater influence on my own musical style and interest than others. These included Linda Ronstadt’s “Simple Dreams,” the soundtrack to “The Harder They Come,” “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” and Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” (She also had Paul Simon’s “The Cape Man” but I don’t remember that one as well.) Two of these albums, “Simple Dreams” and “Graceland” keep surfacing in my life and psyche year after year. Yesterday I was listening to the Buffy Sainte-Marie Pandora station and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” came on. It’s not my favorite song on the album but it caused me to revisit the album as a whole, something I did ten years ago and will probably do ten years from now. 

I was too young to be aware of the controversy surrounding the album, which included issues of Simon violating a cultural exchange ban with the government of South Africa, which upheld Apartheid, and criticism that Simon was, once again, a white man appropriating and exploiting the music of a non-white culture. Simon contended that he was able to give exposure to the South African musicians without supporting their government. Others have argued that the huge success of the album and its concerts increased momentum in the fight agains Apartheid and helped bring down the system a few years later. 

Not being well-educated on the political issues and lacking an academic background in critical theory or race theory (or whatever theory the discussion of appropriation would fall under) I reserve the right to change my opinions stated here in the future. As an observant citizen and a musician and music lover, I tend to believe that increasing exposure of an artist or an art form, if done with respect (and this means giving credit and money where they are due) is a positive thing. Yes, it would be wonderful if Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo could have been appreciated worldwide without working for a white American man. But I cannot see how it’s  bad that they are, in fact, appreciated now. 

One of the key differences between what Paul Simon did with Graceland and what, say, Iggy Azalea (to go for the low-hanging fruit comparison) is doing is that when Graceland came out, most Americans had never heard South African township music or mbaqanga music. When Iggy Azalea came out, the American public was well aware of rap and hip hop music. No matter how you feel about Iggy, I think it’s safe to say she did not expand the genre or its influence. (Although, presumably she does make money for her mentor, rapper/producer/miscellaneous businessman T.I., who is African American, so that makes the issue more complex). 

Returning to the music itself, Graceland is a stellar album. From the opening lines we hear the pathos of America in the 1980s (see also, Joan Baez’s “Children of the 80s”). Having suffered great success and also losses in the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, Simon is now assessing both the fruits and the damages of that time period. His “traveling companion is nine years old, he is the child of my first marriage.” Simon tells us honestly and bluntly that his marriage has “blown apart” and he feels a pull to see Graceland; he is being drawn to comfort and roots and American nostalgia. (I wonder if Simon thought of the irony of the Elvis theme, considering the charges of appropriation that would be brought against him). When he muses on whether he will be forced to explain every ending or whether there’s no obligations now, the question seems both specific to the fallout from the 1960s and 1970s shifting attitudes about domestic relations and universal to all times. 

The other songs that stand out to me on this album are “The Boy in the Bubble,” which for some reason used to scare me as a child in the car with my mother. Perhaps it is the imagery of the sun “beating on the soldiers by the side of the road” or the “shattering of shop windows/the bomb in the baby carriage/was wired to the radio.” Yeah, that might have done it. It’s a gripping song, and if 1986 had “staccato signals of constant information” I can only imagine what’s going on today. 

I’m not sure how I feel about “Call Me Al” because I’ve heard it so much and it was a hit. I can’t sort my feelings apart as to whether I like it or am just very familiar with it. 

Then there’s “Under African Skies” which I primarily like because it features the incomparable Linda Ronstadt on harmony vocals. 

One of my top songs on this album is “I Know What I Know.” I’m not even sure I understand what is going on in this song but it’s entertaining to listen to, fast-paced, and clever. And I’m also fond of pretending to be saying something profound or obstrusely witty when I quote, “Who am I, to blow against the wind?”

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