Gumboots

Album: Graceland (1986)

Songfacts®:

  • This is the song that led to Paul Simon's South Africa visit, where he started recording the tracks for Graceland. In 1984, Simon's friend Heidi Berg gave him a tape of South African recordings called Accordion Jive Hits No. 2, and there was an instrumental song on the tape called "Gumboota" that Simon loved and wanted to record. Not only did he want to record the song, but he wanted to do it with the same South African musicians he heard on the tape: a popular group called The Boyoyo Boys. This turned into a very big deal, since South Africa was under a cultural boycott from the United Nations in protest of their Apartheid policy, so entertainers were strongly discouraged from visiting. Simon went anyway and recorded in Johannesburg with local musicians recruited by South African producers with a connection to Hilton Rosenthal, a white South African who worked for Simon's record company. He recorded the song, retitled "Gumboots," with The Boyoyo Boys, but more significantly, he spent about two weeks there recording with other African musicians, which developed into many of the songs on the Graceland album.
  • According to Simon, this is the type of music favored by miners and railroad workers in South Africa. The term "Gumboots" refers to the heavy boots worn by these workers while they are on the job.

    The lyrics, however, have nothing to do with working in the mines or boots, and the word "Gumboots" never appears. Simon wrote the lyrics for the track when he returned to America - he did his best to weave words around the South African rhythms, and came up three verses connected to the lines, "You don't feel you could love me but I feel you could."
  • Simon later added soprano and alto saxophones to the song. These instruments are frequently used in "township jive" music ("Mbaqanga"), which is similar to another Simon song, "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." In fact, these two instruments (and the lyrics) are the only things that make this song different from an already existing South African song that Simon loved.
  • Paul Simon wasn't thrilled with The Boyoyo Boys when he recorded with them, but he was very happy with some of the other musicians he found. This song stayed on the album only because it led to the Graceland project. Simon told SongTalk: "If it wasn't that 'Gumboots' led me into the whole project, I would have dropped 'Gumboots' from the album. Because I think it's the weakest of the South African cuts."

    As he did with all his South African tracks, Simon gave writing credits to the original writers of the song.

Comments: 6

  • Michael Bol from Seattle, WaHe helped in a way to open African music to the rest of the world, how much he cribbed, stole, collaborated, compensated, will always be argued. He seemed to name many groups and people, and many African artists became popular because of this.
  • Jfairweather from DallasIn opposition to Jim's comment, Simon did NOT use "the same exact track". It was the same song musically and it sounded very similar, but he recorded his version from scratch, using local musicians. View the documentary "Under African Skies" in which they cover the recording session and the musicians involved.
  • Jim Shwarztman from MassachusettsA lot of totally incorrect facts here. 1 - Gumboots is NOT by Paul Simon. He wrote lyrics to an existing track and used THE EXACT TRACK on the record, adding horns and some other NY Studio sounds, and his vocals. 2 - Heidi Berg was NOT a "friend" of Paul Simon's. She was a young professional singer songwriter / guitarist / accordionist.. She was working as band leader for Lorne Michael's New Show and was put together with Simon by Lorne Michaels. Simon had been dumped by his label and his career was in the toilet. He was coming off of two failed records. One Trick Pony & Hearts and Bones. He was by many accounts, washed up. After listening to her play and sing he had agreed to produce two songs of hers for her record project. After meeting with her weekly for months, she played him a tape which she treasured. It was Gumboots Accordion Jive Hits. A fully produced, finished record for real record label in South Africa. Heidi referenced the tape to Paul as a direction for her record. The rhythms and sounds of the accordions and drums and the overall feeling was very similar to the influences she had grown up with, ie: Norwegian accordion and folk sounds. Simon told her to lend it to him and he would let her know what he thought. She did. ...... and to make a long disgusting story shorter, Simon, unbeknownst to Berg, had his people buy all the rights to all of it. He went and secretly bought all the tracks then wrote words over it. On the first release of Graceland he says "a friend of mine, guitarist Heidi Berg gave me a tape" This never happened. He says he didn't know where it came from or anything about its origin. Strange, since the cassette was a real commercially produced, distributed, and copyrighted tape from an actual record label and had all the info, artist names, producer credits etc. clearly printed on it. Simon stole the idea... then he stole the South African sound by putting his trite pseudo poetry stink all over this great fresh music. He also stole a song from Los Lobos for the record. Read what Steve Berlin has to say about him.
  • Bruno from Avignon, FranceTo Kevin: on the tracks I have he doesn't get full writing credits at all, not even full artist credits. It says
    Artist: Paul Simon; The Boyoyo Boys
    Composer: Jonhjon Mkhalali; Lulu Masilela; Paul Simon
    And he probably did compensate them. If Paul Simon was a theif, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (voices on Homeless) would not be world famous now.
  • Kevin from Reading , PaI believe Simon gets full writing credit for this, but as mentioned, he totally cribbed the melody and the music. I once heard the original, and it is identical. My question for Paul, "Did you compensate the 'co-writer' of this tune?" If not, shame on you.
  • Peter from Tacoma, WaA great song. I especilly like the part about slamming into a brick wall.
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