Paul Simon released his seventh solo album, Graceland, in 1986. Prior to the album’s release, Simon’s career had hit an all-time low. Following a reunion with former partner Art Garfunkel, which had been successful but contentious, Simon’s marriage to actress Carrie Fisher had fallen apart and his previous record, Hearts and Bones (1983), had been a commercial disaster. In 1984, following a period of depression, Simon became fascinated by a bootleg cassette of South African township music. He planned a trip to Johannesburg in the New Year with producer Roy Halee, where he spent two weeks recording with South African musicians, who most famously included Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The album was recorded between 1985 and 1986 and featured an eclectic mix of styles ranging from pop and rock to a cappella, zydeco, isicathamiya and andmbaqanga. Simon faced much controversy for seemingly breaking the cultural boycott imposed by the rest of the world against the apartheid regime in South Africa at the time. Furthermore, some critics felt that Graceland was an exploitive appropriation of African cultures. Despite the controversy, Graceland was a major commercial hit, becoming Simon’s most successful solo album.
During the recording of the album, Simon would remain unsure of the album’s thematic connection. He kept dozens of yellow legal pads with random words and phrases which he would combine in an attempt to define the album. The album’s title was taken from a phrase written on one of the pads, “driving through wasteland”, which was changed to “going to Graceland”, a reference to the Memphis home of Elvis Presley. In doing so, Simon believed that it represented a spiritual direction. Just as he had taken his trip to Africa to collect ideas, he also took a trip to Graceland in order to revitalise his love for music.
The album’s title track tells of the singer’s thoughts during this journey following the failure of his second marriage. As the song opens, we find the lines, “The Mississippi Delta was shining, Like a national guitar” in which the singer romanticises the spiritual home of the blues and the birthplace of modern music as we know it. In the following lines, “I’m following the river down the highway, Through the cradle of the civil war”, the singer is driving through the area where many civil war battles were fought.
Following the chorus of the song, the second verse introduces us to Simon’s travel companion with the lines, “My travelling companion is nine years old, He is the child of my first marriage”. Simon’s first marriage was to Peggy Harper from 1969 to 1975. They had one son, Harper Simon. However, Harper Simon was born in 1972, which would make the year of Simon’s trip to Graceland, 1981. We know that the trip took place later, somewhere between 1983 and 1986. Therefore, the child that Simon is talking about is more likely to be a metaphor for the emotional baggage which he carries from his first marriage. With Simon’s marriage to Peggy Harper ending in 1975, we can date his journey to Graceland to 1984. The idea of the “child” being a metaphorical one is made more apparent by the later line, “And my travelling companions are ghosts and empty sockets”, with the “ghosts” and “empty sockets” being the reminders of Simon’s failed relationships. In several lines of the song, such as “But I’ve reason to believe, We both will be received in Graceland” Graceland is portrayed as a spiritual place, somewhere which the singer and other imperfect sinners can be unburdened of their troubles and regrets. This can also be seen in the line in the chorus, “Poor boys and pilgrims with families”.
In the third verse of the song, Simon speaks of Fisher, describing the way “she” had physically left him but had then returned to let him know that she was leaving: “She comes back to tell me she’s gone, As if I didn’t know that”. Simon also tells of how his sense of observation has been insulted by his wife telling him she has left him in the lines, “As if I didn’t know my own bed, As if I didn’t know that”. In the same verse, Simon drifts into daydreaming thinking about his estranged wife with lines such as “As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead”. Following this, Simon speaks of how vulnerable love makes people and the devastating effect his marriage break up has been on him with words spoken to him by Fisher: “and she said, “Losing love, Is like a window in your heart, Everybody sees you’re blown apart, Everybody sees the wind blow”.
Some of the most curious lines of the song are found in verse five: “There’s a girl in New York City, Who calls herself the human trampoline”. Simon explained the meaning of “human trampoline” to SongTalk magazine, saying:
“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 the verse. Which is one of the things I learned from African music: the recapitulation of themes can come in different places”.
As the Simon’s travelogue draws to a close, he sings of how the beauty of Graceland is the way in which “pilgrims” are received without question and do not need to explain themselves: “And I may be obliged to defend, Every love, every ending, Or maybe there’s no obligations now”.
Musically, Graceland is notable for featuring guest backing vocals from Simon’s childhood heroes, Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers. Simon had previously paid tribute to the duo on Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bring Over Troubled Water (1970), which features a cover of the Everly Brothers’ Bye Bye Love (The Everly Brothers, 1958).
In The Story of Graceland as Told by Paul Simon, released by Legacy Recordings on the 25th Anniversary of Graceland, Simon stated, “I always heard that song as a perfect Everly Brothers song”.