The Journey of Graceland

It was a long summer afternoon last year, when 5 o’clock—the time that I would get off work—seemed to be ever-elusive. As I looked to keep myself awake and aware, I searched through my music library for something new and lively, and decided to listen to Graceland, Paul Simon’s 1986 album.

I listened to the album from beginning to end, and then I listened to the 25th anniversary edition. I loved the lyrics, I loved the music, I loved the sound of the South African bands and influence and instruments, and I loved Paul Simon’s conversational singing voice. Most especially, I loved “Graceland,” the song after which the album was named. My heart ached. I wanted to get into a car and drive across the continent. The song called for human movement. It connected me, even at my desk at 3 o’clock on a long summer day, to a whole world of human action. I was excited when, as the album ended, Paul Simon came on to tell the story of the creation of “Graceland”—a special addition to the anniversary album.

His cool voice began: “The Graceland story is a very interesting story, and it’s a very great example of how a collaboration works, even when you’re not aware of it occurring.” Graceland started as a simple drum rhythm that Simon describes as a “travelling rhythm”. He played the drum rhythm for a friend of his, Chikapa ‘Ray” Phiri, a South African jazz musician with whom he worked to make the album. Phiri strummed along to the drum rhythm and switched to the relative minor chord as he played. Simon describes his surprise at Phiri’s choice to play a minor. In the collaborations he had done with other African artists, he had found that they do not use minors. “I was just mimicking the way you write,” Phiri responded to Simon’s inquiry. Then, the lick emerged on a pedal steel guitar, an instrument used in both American country music and West African music. In this dialogue between friends, two traditions and cultures were meeting and merging to create a song.

From there, the rest of the song emerged. Simon began to create the melody and the lyrics, but he was unhappy with the call for ‘Graceland’ that he kept singing. After all, what did Graceland, one of the greatest attractions in American music history, have to do with an album created out of the South African musical tradition? Maybe I have to go to Graceland, Simon thought to himself. So, he drove from Louisiana to Memphis, and he began to describe his journey. The travelling rhythm that he originally saw in the drums was mimicked by his journey through the States. The song, which started in South Africa, was completed as Simon drove through America. In its creation and content, “Graceland” is a song about the human experience in this world. It is the song that made Simon drive to Graceland, he did not force and pressure it into existence; it seemed to spring from somewhere within him, a place about which he wasn’t necessarily aware.

Simon concludes: “That’s really the secret of world music. People are able to listen to each other and make associations and play their own music that sounds like it fits into another culture, and that’s how it works and that’s how it worked then. The story of Graceland.”

I was already convinced of the superiority of this song before listening to Paul Simon speaking about it. But this description of world music solidified its place in my heart. The story of the album, and especially the song “Graceland” is a story of solidarity between world musicians. It is the story of musicians using art to communicate and understand the objectivity of their human experience that they share in completely different cultural contexts. It is the story of the human experience as a traveller in the world, who is often unaware of the bigger picture of the history of which they are a part.

Written by Barbara Egan, a current intern at the WYA North America office.