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The Story of “Graceland” (as told by Paul Simon) Songtext
von Paul Simon

The Story of “Graceland” (as told by Paul Simon) Songtext

The "Graceland" story is a very interesting story in that it's a very good example of how a collaboration works, even when you're not aware of it occurring. The track is one of the early tracks because I only did five tracks in South Africa. On the sessions that I did with Forere, who is the accordion player – plays on "Boy in the Bubble" – we did a few other tracks. One of the tracks, I said, "You know, I like only the drums on this track. I don't really want anything else. I don't want the accordion or bass. I just want the drums." And the drums were... something like a kind of a traveling rhythm in country music. I'm a big Sun Records fan; early 50's, mid-50's Sun Records, you hear that drum beat a lot.
Like a fast, Johnny Cash type of rhythm. And somewhere later in the week of recording when I had put together a rhythm section of Ray Phiri and Bakithi Kumalo and Isaac Mtshali as the rhythm section. I said to Ray one day, "I like this drum pattern. Take a listen to it and see if it does anything for you. You know it sounds kind of like a country thing to me." So he starts to play his version of American country, Ray, he was in the key of E, and then he was playing, you know — of course he's playing electric — but he'd be up over here, you know, like [plays acoustic guitar] then the drums are going [mimics drums]. Oh, then he went [plays guitar] which is a relative minor chord to that key.
I said, "Hey, that's interesting that you played a minor chord," because all the music that I'd been recording with, in South Africa, with the exception of the Sutu music, it was all three-chord major chords. It was never a minor chord. There were times when I'd ask Black Mambazo to sing a minor chord. They couldn't sing a minor chord. They just didn't hear it. So he put in this minor chord, and I said, "That's interesting, why'd you do that?" He said, "I was just imitating the way you write." I said, "Well, play this lick over it:"
...in an overdub. And he did, and it was a really nice mix, and Bakithi was playing, [sings bass part]
The track has a beautiful emptiness to it. I think that's part of what makes me think that it's something like Sun Records. You know, when it was just a few instruments and nothing really much except slap-back echo and a song.
There's also another connection, musically, that's in there, and that is, there's a pedal steel guitar in there. Which is a, of course, a, you know, like a country instrument. But it's also a West African instrument, and the guy who played it, his name was Demola Adepoju. He played with King Sunny Ade's band. You know, I wanted to hear what that lick sounded like [sings lick] — seemed like it would be a very good pedal steel lick. [Pedal steel lick plays] And it was a great pedal steel lick, but it was also a great Ray Phiri performance.
To me, what's interesting is that Ray reaches into his memory for some kind of approximation of what he thinks of as American country. And Bakithi plays straight ahead to the African groove. And so, the two, you know, the two musics find a commonality. And the lyric expresses that. Don and Phil Everly came in and sang. I always heard that songs as a perfect Everly Brothers song.
I was down in South Africa in, I think, February, maybe early March, and I think I didn't go down to Memphis until maybe May. Brought it home, and I was trying to write to it. I would, you know, sing these lines about Graceland. Graceland, of course I wanted to get rid of the Graceland part because, I mean, what's Graceland got to do with South Africa or anything like that, so that's gotta go. It's a question of what I'm going to replace it with. But then I couldn't replace it with anything. I was always singing that. And finally I said, "I don't know, well maybe I'm supposed to go to Graceland." I've never been, maybe I'm supposed to go on a trip and see what I'm writing about. So I did.
And then I began to describe the trip. The Mississippi Delta. 'Cause I was driving up from Louisiana, where I cut the Zydeco track on "Graceland." I was driving from Highway 61. You know, I'm just writing about what the countryside looked like.
And finally got there, to Graceland, and just made a tour through Graceland. But what's interesting about all of this is that the part of me that had "Graceland" in my head, I think subconsciously was reacting to what I first heard in the drums, which was a kind of Sun Records country/blues amalgam. And what Ray was doing was mixing up his aural recollections of what American country was, and what kind of chord changes I played.
And so the whole song really is just one sound evoking a response. And that eventually became a lyric that evoked instead of being specifically about a South African subject or even a political subject, it became a traveling song, that had to do with the original sound which was the drums, and Sub Records and Graceland. That's really the secret of world music, is 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.

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