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Graceland

by

Paul Simon



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

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."

Simon asked him to overdub it with a lick, and along with Khumalo and Mtshali, they came up with the basic track. Said 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."

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.
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. Said 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."

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.
According to an article in the London Times, 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. He teamed up with his stepmother Edie Brickell for the 2008 album Heavy Circles, and a year later released his first solo album, which is called Harper Simon.
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.
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Comments (10):

I think "traveling to Graceland" is a metaphor for life and the struggle for happiness. I don't know if Simon intended Graceland to be paradise in the Christian sense, but for me it is more based on an every day personal experience. It's that place we all strive our whole lives to be in - the place of perfect peace where we are finally accepted, and all our mistakes and weaknesses are utterly forgiven. The closest we can ever come to this place in life is to be loved by someone. And despite striving every day of our lives to get closer to this place, we can only really get there by dying, when the progress of time makes the significance of our faults and fears and wounds and regrets ultimately diminish and dissappear. In that sense we are all "bouncing into Graceland".
- Steve, London, United Kingdom
The opening line "Mississippi delta was shining like a National guitar" refers to a brand of wood and metal resonator type guitar.
- John Dowling, Exeter, NH
In Living Colour's "Elvis is Dead", the song quotes: "I've reason to believe we all won't be received in Graceland."
- Jackie, Virginia Beach, VA
I love the line "She comes back to tell me shes gone, as if i didnt know already, as if i didnt know my own bed". I think this line refers to the divorce from his second wife. Though short i consider that a very deep piece of lyric.
- manuel, puerto rico, United States
The song is about Paul and his son's trip to Memphis to visit Graceland. He obviously needed to get regrounded after his divorce. Doesn't every rock-n-roller want to make that pilgrimage to Graceland?
- Lalah, Wasilla, AK
The Everly Brothers sing background on this song.
- Dusty, Columbia , MO
Yes, he did consider it his best song ever, but he still didn't like all of it! He didn't like the line 'ghosts and empty sockets' - and for what it's worth, I don't like the line immediately after 'ghosts and empties'! To a Brit, 'empties' are empty beer or milk bottles!
- John, Guildford, England
The name of the group performing with Paul on this is "Ladysmith Black Mambazo".
- Mike, Atlanta, GA
There are a lot of technical facts on this page regarding the song. I'm interested in knowing what Paul's thoughts were about the meaning of the song. To me, it is about our need to receive Grace as we get older. The more mistakes we make, the more aware we are of our need for Grace. I think these last lines really illustrate it well:
"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"
I love the way Paul uses the metaphor of Graceland.
- Bettsi, Citrus Heights, CA
Simon considers this song his best work.
- Shelli, Madison, WI
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