I do not like Paul Simon, man.
I do not like him, Sam-I-Am.
In this version of the Dr. Seuss classic, I play the role of the unnamed character and my asshole father plays Sam-I-Am. Having asked me again and again to review Simon, Garfunkel or both, I thought I had shut the door pretty firmly in my non-review of “The Sounds of Silence” in the Dad’s 45’s Series, Part Three:
“Do I have to, Dad?” “Yes.” “But I can’t stand Simon & Garfunkel.” “Paul Simon is an important American songwriter.” “Paul Simon is just the English major version of Neil Sedaka.” “Come on. He was a more-than-credible poet.” “If he was such a credible poet, why did he have to keep reminding people he was a poet and that Artie was just a one-man band?” “How about if we extend the series to 1968 so you can do ‘Mrs. Robinson?’ Surely you see the value in that song.” “I think it’s a dumb-ass song. They tried to show how hip they were with the ‘I Am the Walrus’ snippet and that reference to DiMaggio was astonishingly racist. Who needed DiMaggio when you had Willie Mays? Was it that the white folk back then didn’t cotton to Willie because he was a black dude?” “Well, if all you’re going to do is trash Paul Simon, then don’t bother.”
In truth, the conversation went on a little longer, and I might have said something like, “If I ever hear a Paul Simon song I like, I’ll review the whole fucking album.”
I wish I wouldn’t have said that . . . but I had no idea that a confluence of global events and a failure in predictive science would conspire against me:
- Wednesday, October 28: Macron announces Lockdown: The Sequel, effective Friday, October 30. Maman calls and suggests I come for dinner Thursday night; I remind her that their house is within the 1 km radius restriction, so what’s the rush? “You never know,” maman replies. My mother has amazing instincts.
- Thursday, October 29: A nut with a knife slices up three people at the Basilique Notre Dame that morning; the authorities place the city on a terror alert. I think it’s best to stay put while the gendarmes round up the usual suspects, so I cancel dinner. Meanwhile, I receive texts from three American friends asking “Are you okay?” I respond to all three as follows: “Thanks for your concern, but have you ever known me to spend any time in a fucking church?” I only know the place because I used to walk by it on my way to the Burger King I patronized for my daily Diet Coke fix.
- October 30-November 2: I spend most of my time fucking, writing and walking the dog, waiting to see how things play out. I chat with maman Monday night and we agree that I’ll come for dinner the following day. She reminds me that Tuesday is Election Day in the USA and cautions me that because my father is in an exceptionally giddy mood due to his fervent belief in a Biden victory I should avoid ruining the good vibes with my equally fervent belief in a Trump coup-d’état. Good girl that I am, I agree to her conditions.
My partner, dog and I arrived at about 5 p.m. Tuesday evening, long before the polls closed in the States, but early enough to ensure we’d be able to get home before the 9 p.m. curfew. Dad was in the living room listening to a playlist of some of his favorite tunes; after acknowledging his presence with socially-distanced V-for-Victory signs, we headed to the kitchen to help with meal preparation. When I had completed my tasks, I wandered back to the living room and started thumbing through Dad’s LP collection, looking for a couple of vinyl versions on my to-do list. Every now and then Dad would belt out a line with noticeable and slightly off-key enthusiasm—“Everybody must get stoned” and “She’s got it, yeah baby, she’s got it.” I kept thumbing, half-listening, sometimes humming, occasionally moving my hips to the more appealing beats.
“What are you doing?”
I thought it was kind of obvious and wanted to respond with some snark, but I remembered maman’s injunction to avoid spoiling the mood. “Well, I was looking to see if you had a copy of Masterpieces by Ellington . . . ”
“No, no. What is your body doing?”
I didn’t know what the fuck he was asking me. How should I respond? Breathing? Monitoring my metabolic rate and making the necessary cellular adjustments? I opted for clarification. “What do you mean?”
“You were wiggling your ass.”
“Okay—I always wiggle my ass to the beat when—”
“You were wiggling your ass to Paul Simon!”
“Bullshit. You know I don’t like Paul Simon.”
“Your ass says differently.”
Continuing to luxuriate in his oversized comfy chair with my pooch in his lap, Dad used his remote to flip back to the previous song, which, much to my dismay, turned out to be “You Can Call Me Al.”
“Okay, so what?” I respond with some trepidation.
“Well, I distinctly remember that you said something about if you ever found a Paul Simon song you’d like, you’d review that album.”
“Fuck,” I said under my breath. I thought old guys were supposed to be losing their memories.
“So, while you’re thumbing through the collection, why don’t you save yourself a little time and thumb over to “S”, where you’ll find Graceland under Simon, Paul. Give it a try.”
“Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.”
“Fuck,” I repeated, uncontrollably shaking my ass to the African beats.
To be honest, I was kind of surprised that Dad didn’t nail me before that conversation: I made a semi-positive comment about Graceland in my review of Future Games, where I related a conversation involving the album in which he was a participant. Perhaps the intensity of my overreaction to Simon & Garfunkel caused that thought to linger in his psyche and dismiss contrary evidence as fake news.
I hope that’s the last time I use that phrase.
The truth is I really didn’t mind hearing Graceland when it came up in the rotation on the home stereo during my youth—I just didn’t take it all that seriously. I’ve always considered Paul Simon something of a lightweight, an opinion that hardened as I explored the work of his contemporaries. Can you imagine Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs writing cutesy-wootsy crap like “59th Street Bridge Song,” “Kodachrome” or “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover?” I’d classify his early work as “Pop Songs for Virgin English Majors,” marked by poetic pretense and very little depth. His most acclaimed early-period work, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” is the funeral song I never want to hear at my funeral.
Wait a minute . . . I’ll be dead, so . . .
I considered Paul Simon a competent pop songwriter, producing superficially intellectual versions of Brill Building tunes. He mastered the formulas at an early age, shifting his style and subject matter in lockstep with the changing tastes of the listening audience. That opinion still stands.
Two things happened to make Graceland the exception to the rule. The first was the lackluster chart performance of the album Hearts and Bones, an album snarkily described by Robert Christgau as “a finely wrought dead end.” Since he had no chance of turning himself into Madonna or Prince (the new favored children at Warner), the label wrote him off as a has-been and couldn’t have cared less about what Paul Simon was going to do next. As Simon himself pointed out, the label’s indifference freed him from the pressure of producing something salable according to schedule. He was free to explore other possibilities.
Those possibilities came in the form of a bootleg cassette of South African street music (mbaqanga), identified in the documentary Under African Skies as Accordion Jive Hits Vol II by the Boyoyo Boys. In the film, Simon recalls how he couldn’t stop listening to what would have been a primitive recording at best, entranced by the music and the enthusiastic beat. He asked a pal at Warner to track down the artists; Warner did him one better by hooking him up with South African record producer Hilton Rosenthal, who sent him a stack of recordings of black artists and suggested he record an album of South African music.
Simon thought that was a great idea and resolved to go to South Africa because he wanted to “work with people whose music I greatly admired.” The problem he faced was the U. N. cultural boycott, which required member countries “to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges” with the apartheid government and specifically ordered “writers, artists, musicians” to stay the hell away. After talking it over with Harry Belafonte and Quincy Jones—and after receiving the full support of the South African black musicians union—he decided to make the trip.
What he did not do (though Harry Belafonte recommended he do so) was clear his visit with the African National Congress (ANC), an oversight that would lead to a whole lot of grief in the future. From Simon’s perspective, the visit had nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with artists connecting with artists. He would be attacked for what the cognoscenti considered naïveté, but I fully understand and support his perspective. Music is a far more unifying force than politics and cultural exchange is vital to our survival as a species. The black musicians wanted him to come because they saw the opportunity to share their music with a world audience, which they should have had every right to do.
And no, Paul Simon did not exploit the musicians from a perspective of white privilege. He did what white people are supposed to do: he used his privilege to try to improve the lives of the underprivileged and even the playing field. He paid the musicians triple the New York hourly studio rates earned by elite session men. He gave them credit for their work on compositions, allowing them to earn royalties. He flew them to New York to help with the recording process and enabled them to see (and delight) millions through an extensive world tour. Whether you like the music on Graceland or not (and I haven’t weighed in on that aspect of the story yet), Paul Simon’s role in this story is above reproach.
Once he arrived in Johannesburg, Simon spent two weeks in the studio with the best musicians Rosenthal could recruit. Except for his intent to record one of the songs on the cassette (“Gumboots”), the sessions consisted of unstructured jams peppered with nonsense lyrics and scat that Simon hoped would yield workable phrases and themes he could transform into album tracks. Though the music they played wasn’t particularly complex, Simon had some difficulty getting in sync because he was used to writing songs based on chords, while the foundation of modern South African music is the bass part. Engineer Roy Halee picked up on this when editing and mixing Graceland: “The bassline is what the album is all about. It’s the essence of everything that happened.”
Interestingly enough for a self-styled poet, the lyrics to the songs on Graceland weren’t written until after Halee and Simon had painstakingly built the music from the recording scraps. Simon had to learn how to sync the meter of his poetry with the bassline, which in turn forced him to honor the virtues of poetic economy. This imposed discipline severely limited the tendency of Simon to go “too cute” or “try too hard to be hip,” as evident in his earlier work.
This is a very brief summary of the backstory; if you want to know more, Under African Skies is an unusually balanced and often moving story of Graceland and its worldwide impact.
Now . . . let me recite my mantra and then we’ll get to the songs.
“Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.”
“Boy in the Bubble” opens with the distinctive sound of Forere Motloheloa’s piano accordion, immediately signaling a departure from the guitar song norm. That perception is quickly confirmed by the subsequent appearance of four shocking, thunderous beats from Vusi Khumalo on the toms and the warped tones of Bakithi Kumalo’s bass. Motloheloa’s core riff came from a song he wrote as leader of the band Tau Ea Matsekha, a song about “paying tribute to a beautiful woman who he found and is happy with.” The song was included in the album pile Rosenthal sent to Simon, who checkmarked it as something he wanted to explore in the Johannesburg jam sessions.
The music that came out of that session and through the editing process certainly doesn’t have the feel of an ode to female beauty. The minor key and strong forward movement communicate a tense urgency—and the opening verse is in perfect sync with that subliminal message:
It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio
Simon said the song was about the dichotomy of “hope and dread,” but that abstraction lacks the power communicated by his juxtaposition of bomb and baby carriage. The verse depicts both calm and storm, evoking the curious historical pattern of major disasters occurring on days of calm, sunny weather. December 7, 1941. November 22, 1963. September 11, 2001. When witnesses to those events talk about their experiences, their stories often begin with phrases like “it was a quiet Sunday morning,” “it was a perfect day in Dallas,” “the skies over New York were clear and cloudless.” When those folks mention the weather, they’re struggling to grasp the senselessness, the shock of a sudden life-changing event.
Simon then proceeds to shock the listener with the first line of the chorus, “These are the days of miracle and wonder,” a phrase that comes across as incredibly tone-deaf following the depiction of an act of terror, but actually reflects a profound understanding of the dichotomous nature of human existence. Yin and yang. Darkness and light. Good and evil. Radios are delightful when they play your favorite tunes and radios can become instruments of evil when wired to set off an explosion—both applications are the result of human “ingenuity.” Remaining true to his narrative of a dichotomous reality, Simon repeats “These are the days of miracle and wonder” at the end of the chorus, but follows it with the paradoxical “And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry/Don’t cry.” Our miracles and wonders always exact a price, as most clearly demonstrated in the systematic disruption that follows every major technological innovation and wreaks havoc on the working classes.
Verse two is a bit obscure but deals with the greatest dichotomy of them all—the cycle of life and death. Verse three is the most exuberant, with Simon’s thoughts spilling over into a sort of appended verse set to the music of the chorus. The overflow communicates the exciting and terrifying speed of change, the danger of “staccato signals of constant information” (prescient, given that Graceland is pre-Internet) and Simon’s perceptive insight into who’s running the show (he provides a succinct description of how the world works in Under African Skies):
It’s a turn-around jump shot
It’s everybody jump start
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
Think of the boy in the bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart
And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby
If you’re struggling to find contemporary examples of how a technological development that appears to be a good thing turns out to be a very, very bad thing because of the power held by “a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires,” look no further than your Facebook home page. “Boy in the Bubble” isn’t dated in the least—Simon succinctly describes the essential struggle of the human race at this point in the evolutionary cycle, brilliantly integrating those lyrics with a mix of musical styles and diverse instrumentation.
I have at least one important qualification for reviewing the song “Graceland.” I’ve actually been there! I sat in the pink Jeep from Blue Hawaii, visited the well-tended gravesite and marveled at the exquisite bad taste of the Jungle Room. I hung out in the gift shop, filled with matronly southern women with their silvery-gray hair wrapped up in buns cradling armfuls of Elvis memorabilia. While visiting Memphis, I also explored the scene on Beale Street, just missed the duck parade at the Peabody Hotel and witnessed the brutal poverty of the Mississippi Delta.
Paul Simon took pretty much the same trip, but for different reasons (I just wanted to listen to some music, experience the history and have a good time). He had been working on the lyrics to one of the songs and used the term “Graceland” as temporary filler until something better came along. For some damned reason, “Graceland” wouldn’t go away, so he decided to fly down and give it a look-see. It can’t be stressed enough that this was Paul Simon acting on instincts and following his whimsy, as befits a recording artist whose record company had pretty much given up on him. He had the great good fortune to experience a blessed moment of artistic freedom, a very rare occurrence in any artist’s life, no matter where they are in the hierarchy.
What blows me away about “Graceland” is how completely Paul Simon captured the mood and symbolic meaning of the place. When I visited, the atmosphere was one of relative stillness, even with all the tourists passing through. These were people on a pilgrimage to a holy shrine, lowering their voices to near-whispers out of respect for the sacred environment. The faces of the visitors as they departed radiated an almost spiritual serenity as if the experience was healing in some way—as if being with Elvis had helped them recover from some kind of pain or difficulty.
Simon’s pilgrimage begins with a jaunt through “The Mississippi Delta . . . shining like a National Guitar,” following the river of life through “the cradle of the Civil War,” on his way to join the American hadj as it converges toward the hallowed ground:
I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland
My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received
At this point, Paul Simon could have taken the path forged by Ray Davies’s alt-Norman character in Soap Opera, explained to the listening audience “I’m doing research for one of my songs,” and written a cute little number about this “crazy” place he decided to visit on one of his pop star whims (Paul Simon’s greatest sin has to be the overuse of the word “crazy”). Fortunately for posterity, the Paul Simon who wrote “Graceland” had been recently humbled by commercial failure and crushed by the collapse of his marriage to Carrie Fisher. As he approaches the shrine, memories of that loss come to the fore, forcing him to realize that like all the other pilgrims headed to Graceland, he is searching for an experience that might heal his wounds:
She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said, “Losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow.”
Tragedy has the virtue of eliminating the need for pretense; no matter how much you try to put up a brave front, people can see and feel your pain. Simon arrives at Graceland, looks at the people surrounding him and realizes they are one and the same: human beings trying to deal with deep existential pain coming together in shared grief in their search for some kind of comfort:
And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I’m looking at ghosts and empties
But I’ve reason to believe
We all will be received
I may come across as a cynical, cold-hearted bitch at times, but I was actually quite moved by my visit to Graceland and I felt nothing but love and respect for those matrons clutching their Elvis relics while wiping away an occasional tear. I think Paul Simon felt the same way—his humiliations made him one of us, “tumbling in turmoil,” part of the multitude of ghosts and empties sharing a profound sense of loss.
Shit. Seven paragraphs and three long quotes into this song review and I haven’t even mentioned the music! I could do seven paragraphs on Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass part alone, a collage of arpeggios, truncated phrases and ghost notes that punctuate the rhythm from the drums and percussion while establishing complementary rhythms that propel the song forward. Or Ray Phiri’s amazingly fluid and diverse lead guitar, featuring toned-down, high-speed arpeggios in the background with lovely melody-enhancing solos. And then we have The Everly Brothers handling the harmonies on the chorus in one of the sweetest examples of icing on the cake in my musical memory. While I remain totally baffled by “Mrs. Robinson” winning the Grammy for Record of the Year, I have no issues with “Graceland” winning the 1987 award—it’s a great song with great performances all around.
After two fairly deep pieces, Simon shifts to the lighter side with a song about a Manhattan soirée in “I Know What I Know.” The Johannesburg recording was a family affair, with members of General M.D. Shirinda and The Gaza Sisters inviting children and siblings to the studio. The intro features a noticeably brisk and loud guitar accompanied by an enhanced snare attack that certainly grabs the listener’s attention and then some, so it’s something of a relief when they ease into a background role. The semi-random appearances of The Gaza Sisters singing in the Shangaan language and dropping in sets of joyful whoops from time to time add to the absurd party atmosphere. While the song doesn’t explore the passive-aggressive toxicity of these dreadful parties to the extent that Phil Ochs does in “The Party,” Simon does a fine job of recording for posterity the witless conversations focused solely on sniffing out a partygoer’s status so one can decide if they’re worth the effort. The song sort of collapses into the next track, “Gumboots,” the song that initially led Simon down the path that wound up in Graceland. It turns out to be more of a zydeco number with its breakneck speed and deft accordion, but the lyrics feel like pre-Graceland Paul Simon with too many cute turns of phrase (“I said hey Senorita that’s astute/I said why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute”). Tuning out the lyrics does allow the listener to appreciate the lovely background vocals of Diane Garisto and Michelle Cobbs.
Side One ends on a positive note with “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” featuring the marvelous choral work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I love the sound of deep male voices and the inherent melody and rhythms in many African languages, so listening to the a capella introduction is a special treat for me (I also love the way Ladysmith’s gruff timbre contrasts with Paul Simon’s smooth and gentle vocal). Ray Phiri’s distinctive guitar opens the song proper, set to a mid-tempo sway with exceptional contributions from the percussion quartet and horn trio. The lyrics aren’t much to write home about, a sort of non-story about a rich girl and a poor boy that somehow results in the equalizing experience of “Sleeping in a doorway/By the bodegas and the lights on Upper Broadway” without much explanation as to how they got there. Simon also resorts to his habitual use of the word “crazy,” convincing me that it’s his all-purpose go-to when the language center in his brain goes on the fritz. The best lyrics in the song can be found in Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s introduction, translated from Zulu as “It’s not usual but in our days we see those things happen. They are women, they can take care of themselves.”
YES WE CAN!
Flipping over to Side Two, we engage with the song that got me into trouble in the first place, “You Can Call Me Al.” The song has a noticeably different feel than the other songs on Graceland, having been recorded entirely in New York, but the continuing presence of Phiri, Kumalo and Ladysmith provide an ample measure of continuity. The groove that set my ass to waggin’ was the work of arranger and synthesizer man Rob Mounsey, who combined a nine-piece horn section with unique bass and percussion contributions to keep the beat moving. I don’t know how anyone can help themselves from ass-wagging to this song—it’s superb, street-struttin’ stuff.
Paul Simon gave a rather vague and confusing explanation of the song in an interview with SongTalk magazine, probably because the guy in the song going through his mid-life crisis who finds himself getting “soft in the middle” and in need of a photo-opportunity pretty much describes Paul Simon at this point in his life. It’s not entirely biographical; I doubt very much if Simon lost his faith in role models because (not being an Evangelical Christian) his hero “ducked back down the alley with some roly-poly little bat-faced girl.” However, he does admit that the last verse is autobiographical in the sense of describing the culture shock he experienced in South Africa. What he describes is not specifically tied to his experience but generalized to depict the average American, lost and clueless in foreign climes:
A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, the sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says, “Amen and Hallelujah!”
Of course he would. On sensory overload with all those furriners speakin’ funny and his dollars worthless, he chooses to chalk it all up to his god rather than trying to engage with the natives and maybe learn something in the process.
The sexy, sassy sound of “You Can Call Me Al” gives way to the occasionally more soothing but still intensely rhythmic “Under African Skies.” The softer sounds come from the Simon-Linda Ronstadt duet in the verses; the rhythm was described by Hilton Rosenthal in the liner notes as “a Zulu walking rhythm,” a modestly assertive, prideful gait. Both vocalists raise the intensity in the chorus, though only Ronstadt reaches full belt-out mode.
The “Joseph” in the song probably refers to Joseph Shabalala, leader of Ladysmith Black Mombazo and not the New Testament Joseph, as the often-wrong Stephen Holden has asserted. The lyrics promise “the story of how we begin to remember” but I’ve searched high and low and can find no evidence of such a narrative. I do know that the narrator (such as it is) cannot be Paul Simon, who was born far away from Tuscon, Arizona and, unless he is hiding a very big secret, is not a girl (“Give her the wings to fly through harmony”). There are indeed some attractive lines in the lyrics (“This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein”), but beyond the spare description of Joseph, not much in the way of coherence. I think the music is beautiful and I love the work of Ray Phiri and Bakithi Kumalo (again), but after hearing recordings of the live version with Miriam Makeba taking Ronstadt’s role, I find the original comparatively disappointing.
According to Songfacts, “When he returned to America, Simon wrote “Homeless” and put a demo of the song on a tape, which he sent to the group (Ladysmith Black Mambazo), letting them know they could change it any way they wanted. The demo cassette was Simon on piano singing only the line, ‘We are homeless, homeless, moonlight sleeping on the midnight lake.’ Shabalala continued the story in Zulu to complete the songwriting process.” What he did was borrow some of the lines from a traditional Zulu wedding song, resulting in a set of lyrics where “homeless” takes on multiple meanings, none of which sync with the modern Western definition of homelessness as a phenomenon resulting from income disparity, technological progress and property rights:
- In the context of a Zulu marriage proposal, the word is used as an argument for union, as in “we are homeless now, but together we can create a home.” That’s sweet.
- Another translation (from Shabalala) of the introductory lines describes a temporary, nomadic existence: “We’re far away from home and we’re sleeping. Our fists are our pillows.”
- A subsequent passage (beginning with “Zio yami”) translates roughly into “My heart, you have killed me from the cold,” equating homelessness with loneliness.
- The English lyrics sung by Ladysmith also describe the displacement of people following a major storm (“Strong wind destroy our home/Many dead, tonight it could be you”).
And though Paul Simon did not want Graceland to be a political record—a naïve wish if there ever was one, given the nature of apartheid—the subtext can easily be interpreted to equate apartheid with homelessness, in the sense of living within the geographical boundaries of a state while being excluded from participating in the creation and sustenance of that state. The line “Somebody cry why, why, why?” is political, whether Paul Simon likes it or not.
Lyrics and language aside, “Homeless” is a mesmerizing and moving choral performance, thankfully delivered a capella. If you ever joined a school chorus or a church choir, you know it takes a lot of practice to get all the voices in sync—and I’m just talking about getting everyone to hit the right notes. The great choral groups go beyond that and connect on a spiritual level, with each individual feeding off the energy of the others and giving it back in return. You hear that very clearly in Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance on “Homeless,” where the group completely immerses itself into the music and the shared experience, intuitively responding on all levels—dynamic, rhythmic and emotional. What’s even more remarkable is that Paul Simon’s contributions don’t feel at all like those of an outsider—he also catches the spirit and delivers appropriately impassioned lines. I can’t listen to “Homeless” without tearing up, and the source of those tears come from both the bitter sense of injustice forced on those remarkably gifted artists but also the awesome beauty of human voices joining together in spirit and song.
Let me take a moment . . . Paul Simon is about to go crazy on me.
I was stunned to learn that Simon hadn’t planned to include “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” on Graceland until a combination of an unexpected performance on Saturday Night Live and a Warner-imposed delay of its release caused him to reconsider. I wish they’d excluded “Crazy Love, Vol. II,” a song about a loathsome character improbably named Fat Charlie the Archangel who approaches the prospect of divorce with equally loathsome stoicism. Ray Phiri’s band Stimela provides the background music, which is easily the best part of the piece, but their talents are wasted here. I don’t exactly why this phrase came to mind, but I’ll spring it on you anyway: this song is nowheresville, daddio.
Paul Simon wanted a couple of tracks that connected African and American music, so he popped down to Lousiana and found a real zydeco band complete with washboard by the name of Good Rockin’ Dopsie And The Twisters to deliver the goods on “That Was Your Mother.” This is a sprightly little number with Alton Jay Rubin (aka Rockin’ Dopsie) on accordion supplying counterpoint rhythm and fills and a solid sax solo from a gent named Johnny Hoyt. The tale involves a father relating to the son the circumstances behind his birth; dad is your classic traveling salesman who hit the road in search of booze, broads and good-time music (not necessarily in that order). While “standing on the corner of Lafayette,” a “young girl, pretty as a prayerbook,” happens by . . . and I guess something happened between the two to produce a kid, but Simon gives us no information as to how or how quickly consummation took place, nor does he imply that the kid was the result of a virgin birth. But while Simon may be squeamish about sex, his narrator pulls no punches when he tells the son his appearance on the scene was not particularly welcomed:
Well, that was your mother
And that was your father
Before you was born dude
When life was great
You are the burden of my generation
I sure do love you
But let’s get that straight
Joe Strummer waxed lyrical about the line, “Before you was born dude/When life was great,” and I have to admit I had to laugh at the sheer honesty of the statement—perhaps the loose feel of zydeco makes it feel okay . . . oh, hell, I’ll admit it—I never wanted kids and it’s exactly what I would have said to a kid had I ever been so unfortunate to have one.
For the finale, Simon flew over to East L. A. to work with Los Lobos, an exceptionally talented rock band versed in multiple styles who at the time were a year away from their breakthrough hit (“La Bamba”). The song that came out of the session was saddled with the unwieldy title “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.” The lyrics are about . . . a former talk-show host, no . . . a former army post, no . . . okay, it’s the talk show host . . . well, the lyrics make little sense and I would like to nominate the line “ever since the watermelon” for Worst Line to Ever Appear in a Paul Simon Song. If you put the lyrics aside and focus on Paul Simon’s intent to link African and American influences, the song works, largely because Los Lobos kicks ass right from the get-go. The intro featuring Louie Perez banging a steady beat and Conrad Lozano ripping it on the bass is a great warmer-upper, and both David Hidalgo (accordion) and Cesar Rojas (guitar) keep the heart pumping with propulsive power. Though I don’t think much of the song, the enthusiastic performance of the band allows us to leave Graceland on a perfectly natural high.
On to the reckoning . . . Graceland is an outstanding piece of work featuring fabulous and inspiring music played by world-class musicians and engineered to near perfection. While there are a couple of lyrical misses, the album contains at least three certifiable masterpieces of the songwriting art and several top-tier tracks guaranteed to elicit a smile and some energetic hip-shaking. Graceland had an enormous impact throughout the world, exceeding anything Paul Simon could have hoped for when he made the courageous decision to work with black South African musicians. And yes, the album had a political impact—by giving those musicians worldwide exposure, Simon transformed apartheid from an abstraction to a tangible evil oppressing the lives of real human beings with hearts, souls and undeniable ability. Both the music and the story of Graceland are deeply moving, and it certainly deserves to be included in any discussion of the greatest albums of all-time.
Sigh. It takes a big girl to admit she’s wrong, and though I’m only 5’6″ and 122 pounds, I think I can do this.
I like Paul Simon, man!
I do! I like him, Sam-I-am!
And I would listen to him in a boat
And I would listen to him on a goat
Okay, I think that’s enough. Ciao!
As I am deeply concerned about the mental health of my readers given the hyper-charged political climates in the US and UK, I have chosen to avoid politically-charged music for the foreseeable future. Though Parcel of Rogues doesn’t quite qualify as apolitical due to two songs involving political intrigue in the early 18th century, I’m pretty confident that there are no Jacobites in my audience and that comments made in response to this post will not ignite a heated debate over the restoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Parcel of Rogues represented an important step in Steeleye Span’s development with its extensive use of electric guitar and overdubbing (they would soon add a full-time drummer to further strengthen the connections to rock). The impetus for introducing more rock sensibilities to the music was spearheaded by Bob Johnson, a dogged researcher of folk tradition who identified and arranged many of Steeleye Span’s most memorable takes on traditional folk songs. With a multi-talented cast of accomplished musicians, Steeleye Span would develop a sound more attuned to modern tastes while remaining firmly entrenched in folk traditions.
If you knew nothing about Steeleye Span or Parcel of Rogues and popped on over to Amazon to read the user reviews to see what all the hoo-hah was about, you would likely form the conclusion that the album’s main attraction is Maddy Prior’s voice. One of the strongest pieces of evidence in support of that assertion is found on the opening track, “One Misty Moisty Morning.” The song is based on the traditional “The Wilshire Wedding (Between Daniel Do-well and Doll the Dairy Maid with the Consent of her Old Father Leather-Coat, and her dear and tender Mother Plodwell)” [Roud 13910 , 20075 ; Ballad Index OO2359 ; Bodleian Roud 13910]. The lyrics used here are closer to the Bodleian take, though Steeleye Span wisely eliminated several of the more tedious verses where Daniel meets and gains the approval of the parents.
Maddy assumes the role of Daniel, who while strolling along “one misty moisty morning” bumps into “an old man a-clothed all in leather.” The old man responds enthusiastically to Daniel’s greeting, “Singing how d’ya do and how d’ya do and how d’ya do again” (the phrase that serves as the song’s chorus). Daniel refers to the old man as a “rustic,” implying that he (Daniel) is an educated city fella. We learn that the old man is a thresher, which means he earned his keep by using a device called a flail to break the seed heads on oat and wheat stalks while waiting for the Industrial Revolution to come along and make him obsolete.
Historical Aside: Thanks to the murderous ingenuity of homo sapiens, the flail was also transformed into a weapon by adding metal spikes to the club, giving the warrior a handy-dandy device for splattering an opponent’s brains all over the battleground.
But I digress. Daniel continues his jaunt and happens upon a milkmaid named Dolly who tells him she’s going “a-milking, Sir” a quaint phrase that Daniel finds absolutely charming. Falling in love at first sight (and likely horny as hell), Daniel then describes how he gave Dolly “many kind embraces” and that he “stroked her double chin,” causing Dolly’s heart to go all a-flutter (to say nothing of the excitement she felt in another part of her anatomy). Having thereby overcome all resistance, Daniel claims his bride, gets the parents to sign off and marries her straightaway. A celebration follows where caps are flung and all join together in a round of “how d’ya do and how d’ya do and how d’ya do and how d’ya do again,” after which I’m sure Daniel immediately escorted Dolly to a conveniently-located copse and banged her to the complete satisfaction of both parties.
A story is only as good as its storyteller, and Maddy Prior is a marvelous tale-spinner. The clever introductory passage features a trio of guitars set to contrasting textures ranging from clean to distorted, building to a close marked by a wah-wah peddle on distortion that ends on a rising note. As the final note fades, we hear the more natural sound of Peter Knight picking a jaunty phrase on mandolin as Maddy approaches the microphone, stepping into the empty space created by the disappearance of the guitars.
That space intensifies the crystal clarity of her voice, a voice of stunning beauty that defines the word “riveting.” Her delivery is unforced; the syllables roll off her tongue as naturally as conversational speech. Her phrasing is perfectly clear, her breath timing remarkably unnoticeable. The first two verses feature only Maddy supported by Peter, a wise choice that strengthens the position of story and storyteller, allowing the listener to revel in the beauty of the voice and the language:
One misty moisty morning when cloudy was the weather
I met with an old man a-clothed all in leather
He was clothed all in leather with a cap beneath his chin
Singing how do you do and how do you do and how do you do againThis rustic was a thresher as on his way he hied
And with a leather bottle fast buckled by his side
He wore no shirt upon his back but wool unto his skin
Singing how do you do and how do you do and how do you do again
The wah-wah reappears on the second chorus, assuming a position in the channel opposite the mandolin, leaving Maddy to dominate the center. As she spins the tale, you notice subtle adjustments in her phrasing that add diversity to the mix and color to the story—when she comes to the point in the song where Daniel attempts to mimic Dolly’s vernacular—“‘a-milkins’, Sir,’ she said”—you hear the polite deference in her voice and can easily visualize her making a curtsy as she says it. The arrangement continues to build in the background as the story progresses; on the third chorus, Rick Kemp makes his first appearance on the bass while Bob Johnson and Tim Hart join Maddy on the vocals. The fourth verse introduces the surprise plot twist where after spending oh, about ten minutes with this broad, Daniel announces in an aside to the listening audience “And straight I fell a-courting her in hopes her love to win.” As the sudden news takes some time to absorb, Bob Johnson decided it was a good time for an instrumental break, a wise decision that prolongs the suspense.
Maddy continues the tale in verse five over an arrangement similar to verse four, but as the sixth verse depicts the marriage proposal, the band tones it down to sweet-and-sacred by repeating the pattern of the opening passage, substituting tinkly piano for one of the guitars—another brilliant move. The arrangement expands in verse seven to incorporate the mandolin, followed by the full band on the wah-wah-enhanced chorus. That power shift presages the goose-bump-generating final verse, where the band plays at full power and Maddy adjusts her breathing to achieve full diaphragm-driven oomph starting with the phrase “to celebrate the day,” leading the band into a perfectly constructed coda marked by a stirring finish. If I ever decide to create best-of-lists, I am 100% positive that “One Misty Moisty Morning” would easily earn a place in the category of Best Opening Number, All Genres.
The problem with a strong opening number is you have to follow it with something pretty damned good or samplers might conclude that the album is a one-song wonder. The Beatles and George Martin did this exceptionally well in the post-Beatlemania period, as the following examples demonstrate:
- “Taxman”/”Eleanor Rigby”
- “Back in the U. S. S. R.”/”Dear Prudence”
- “Come Together”/”Something”
Two patterns emerge: one, the paired songs are noticeably different in terms of style, tempo and subject matter; two, each features a different lead singer (and in these cases, a different songwriter as well). As we just had a rousing and joyful number, logic demands something darker and rougher. “Allison Gross” [Roud 3212; Child 35], with Bob Johnson singing a tale about “the ugliest witch in the North Country,” would qualify on the lyrics alone, but Steeleye Span raised the stakes by exploiting the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar.
The first three verses set up the story: Alison Gross has “trysted” the narrator to come to her bower, where, according to the narrator . . .
She stroked my head and she combed my hair
She set me down softly on her knee
Saying if you will be my lover so true
So many good things I would give to you
Gee, Alison sounds like a nice girl! The narrator, however, chooses to respond to her wiles with unadulterated venom:
Away, away, you ugly witch
Go far away and let me be
I never will be your lover so true
And wish I were out of your company
Well, now, hold on there, pardner! She didn’t force you to come, so you never had to be in her company in the first place! Sounds to me like you’ve got a problem with assertive, independent women and, as men terrified of losing their god-given power have done for centuries, you’ve tagged her with the old “evil witch” label. Since you knew she had a “tryst” in mind, are you playing hard to get? Or is your pecker telling you one thing and your misogyny another?
Alison chooses to ignore the insults (what a classy broad!) and spends three verses offering him an array of gifts, including “a mantle of red scarlet,” “a shirt of the softest silk well-wrought with pearls around the band,” and “a cup of the good red gold well set with jewels so fair to see.” Our loser of a hero responds to her incredible generosity with more venom:
Away, away, you ugly witch
Go far away and let me be
I never would kiss your ugly mouth
For all of the gifts that you could give
Alison has finally had it with this annoying little shit and decides to give it back to him with a vengeance:
She turned her right and round about
And thrice she blew on a grass-green horn
She swore by the moon and the stars of above
That she’d make me rue the day I was born
Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm
YOU GO, GIRL!
This incredibly satisfying denouement is not how the original tale ended. Bob Johnson cut the last two verses that describe how the Queen of the Fairies shows up one Halloween and turns this measly little worm into . . . well, a measly little worm in human form. I consider the Queen of the Fairies a traitorous bitch and will have no more to do with her.
And truth be told, the worm transformation isn’t really the end of the Steeleye Span version of “Alison Gross.” After the final round of the chorus, our ears are blasted away by a series of power chords as harsh as anything you’d hear in death metal—the sonic equivalent of Alison’s final blow, the triumphant sound of dark magic . . . and, in my highly biased, pro-Alison interpretation, a dire warning to men who dare disrespect a strong woman. The effect is doubly shocking because such an abrasive sound is so unexpected from Steeleye Span, but I would argue that the choice is completely defensible in the context of the story and the arrangement.
Shifting gears once again, “The Bold Poachers” [Roud 1686; Ballad Index McCST098; Bodleian Roud 1686] is a tragedy played out in G minor, the arrangement built around Tim Hart’s Appalachian dulcimer. The electric guitar here is limited to punctuation and vertical swoops that serve to emphasize the overall gloom; Hart’s vocal is complemented by two and three-part harmonies sometimes marked with Maddy Prior’s swooping soprano that reflects the sinking feeling of approaching doom. The apparent tragedy is the loss of two young poachers who are found guilty of murder and condemned to exile on a prison ship bound for either Australia or the American colony, which, according to the liner notes, was “tantamount to a sentence of death.” The real tragedy is how wealthy landowners pitted the lower classes against each other—the two young men murdered two gamekeepers, hired hands paid a measly sum to protect their masters’ sacred property rights.
We certainly need a little pick-me-up here, and the voices of Maddy Prior and Tim Hart join together to give us “Ups and Downs” [Roud 364; Ballad Index K176; Wiltshire 255], a song that certainly sounds jolly enough, though it turns out a less-than-jolly experience for the maiden in question. The narrator (whom we learn later is a bloke named Mickey) is on his way to the market at Aylesbury when he runs into a lass headed in the same direction, intending to hawk her dairy products. As it happens, Lady Luck is going to toss Mickey a rare softball opportunity:
As we jogged on together my boys together side by side
By chance this fair maid’s garter by chance it came untied
For fear that she might lose it I unto her did say
Your garter’s come untied my love fol-der-o diddle-o-day
Your garter’s come untied my love fol-der-o diddle-o-day
Rather than reply to such an obvious come-on with a well-deserved slap in the puss, the maiden thinks for a moment, then replies, “O since you’ve been so venturesome pray tie it up for me/O I will if you go to the apple grove fol-der-o diddle-o-day,” obviously having decided that her diddle-o-day could use a nice twiddle-o-day. I’ll bet you can’t guess what happens next:
And when we got to the apple grove the grass was growing high
I laid this girl upon her back her garter for to tie
While tying of her garter such sights I never did see
The fact that Mickey is rookie when it comes to nookie is confirmed by the immediate appearance of the chorus: “And we both jogged on together my boys fol-der-o diddle-o-day.” Calculating the time between “laid this girl” and the moment they climbed back on their trusty steeds, I estimate that Mickey shot his wad in nine seconds.
I have no moral or ethical problem with this bawdy wench having a brief, er, very brief roll in the grasses, but sadly, her greatest mistake was to let the guy shoot first and ask some rather important questions later:
O since you’ve had your will of me come tell to me your name
Likewise your occupation and where and whence you came
Much to her dismay, she learns that Mickey is not an overcompensated executive but a drover boy (cattle or sheep-herder) from Dublin (gasp!) and he lives at the Ups and Downs, which, according to Mainly Norfolk, “was a nickname, or possibly a euphemism, for the sixty-ninth foot regiment, a Welsh regiment which was regarded as a humorous anomaly because their ranks consisted largely of raw recruits and elderly veterans.” In other words, L-O-S-E-R. The song ends with the girl having wasted her cherry on a nobody and unable to sell even a stick of butter at the fair. The moral of the story is a twist on the age-old wisdom that a man’s brain is located in his testicles, but while a man can pretty much get off scot-free, when a woman thinks from her clitoris, she could wind up preggers or labeled a (gasp!) whore.
Thank Science for The Pill!
After a brief lead-in, the instrumental “Robbery with Violins” opens with an outburst of wah-wah and screaming violin giving way to Rick Kemp’s believe-it-or-not funk-style bass. The “robbery” in question follows when Peter Knight re-enters playing the old reel “The Bank of Ireland,” a highly adaptable piece often played on tin whistle or accordion. For me, Rick Kemp’s bass is the highlight; Knight’s otherwise well-played fiddle solo suffers from a combination of too much reverb and a poor EQ setting. It’s followed by the children’s song, “The Wee Wee Man” [Roud 2865; Child 38], a fantasy about a tiny little guy with a long white beard and superhuman strength. It’s well-played but something of a bore—though you might find it useful if you’re tired of reading “Rumplestiltskin” to your kiddoes.
For those who think I’m overplaying the sex angle on Parcel of Rogues, this is what the folks at Mainly Norfolk had to say about “The Weaver and the Factory Maid” [Roud 17771, 3085]: “The earliest weavers’ songs are from the time when handloom weavers went from village to village, setting up in farmhouse and cottage kitchens. Amorous chances were plenty.” Those were the good old days before steam looms and textile factories enflamed many a Luddite to try to block technological progress by smashing up the newfangled machines. Worse still was the fact that the weavers (mostly men) were now forced into dependence on women to earn their daily keep: “This song, lyrical and wry, curiously illuminates this moment in history when the handworkers were finding themselves obliged to follow the girls into the factories and weave by steam, and when country song was changing to town song.”
The narrator is one of those handloom weavers forced to make the change, and in so doing winds up working with and bedding one of the factory girls. His father strongly objects (“How could you fancy a factory maid?”) but the more sensible son defends his decision by pointing out the undeniable advantages of the new world order:
“How can you say it’s a pleasant bed
When nowt lies there but a factory maid?”
And a factory lass although she be
Blest is the man that enjoys she
O pleasant thoughts come to me mind
As I turn down the sheets so fine
And I seen her two breasts standing so
Like two white hills all covered with snow
Of course, nothing in this world comes without a price, especially a great pair of tits. As the weaver learns quickly enough, the price he has to pay for the right to bury his face in the lady’s luscious cleavage is a mental state that would be eventually identified as “modern ennui”:
The yarn is made into cloth at last
The ends of the weft they are made quite fast
The weaver’s labors are now all past
Such a wearisome trade is the weaver
Maddy’s vocal is typically marvelous, her voice gliding effortlessly up and down the scale, spicing up her delivery with trills and glissandi, and once again varying her timbre in sync with the mood of the characters. The syncopated rhythms established by electric guitar and bass calls to mind many a Jethro Tull song, but unbalanced (to modern ears) rhythms were not uncommon in the traditional folk music of the isles.
We now move to two songs that form the heart of Parcel of Rogues (one of which gave the album its title), each having to do with different phases of the Jacobite movement in favor of the restoration of the House of Stuart. This was apparently a big deal for a lot of folks in Scotland and Ireland who had the misfortune of being denied Pete Townshend’s eternal wisdom, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”
“Rogues of the Nation” [Roud 5516; trad., from Hogg’s Jacobite Relics from Scotland] specifically deals with the Acts of Union in 1707 officially unifying the kingdoms and parliaments of England and Scotland. The song adopts the perspective of the Scottish opposition to the union, who believed (correctly) that the marriage was consummated through English bribery of Scottish rogues using a combination of cash and position. Though the song is attributed to Robert Burns, there is contrary evidence that the song originated in the previous century, indicating that roguism was nothing new in bonny Scotland.
What force or guile could not subdue
Through many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor’s wages
The English steel we could disdain
Secure in valour’s station
But English gold has been our bane:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
Though the politics may be obscure, the performance is incredibly moving. Accompanied only by a funeral bass drum, Maddy, Bob and Tim give us three verses of three-part harmony marked by tones that capture the deep bitterness and sadness of the betrayal. Equally moving is Peter Knight’s overdubbed fiddle solo that follows in stereo, a combination of steady bowing and sharp thrusts that reflects the dagger plunged into the Scottish heart. In an album of superb arrangements, “Rogues in the Nation” stands out for its blessed simplicity and stunning execution.
Fast forward a few decades . . . the Scottish Jacobites are still pissed about the union, and even more so since Queen Anne of the House of Stuart failed to make babies after seventeen attempts! The throne was claimed by a gent from the German town of Hanover (George I) over the objections of Jacobites who argued that the Stuarts deserved the spot. In a fit of collective pique, the Jacobites rebelled in 1715, and because they were driven more by passion than military might, suffered a crushing defeat.
The loss forced the Jacobites underground, where they bided their time for Bonnie Prince Charlie (and another failure thirty-odd years away) by writing mocking songs like “Cam Ye O’er Frae France” [Roud 5814, from Hogg’s Jacobite Relics from Scotland] targeting George I. It does take a bit of effort on the part of the modern reader to grasp the meaning of the song; as noted by Renaissance Man and songsmith James Prescott, “Many Jacobite songs are riddling—in part to steer clear of the laws against treason, and in part from a love of satirical wit that was widespread at the time throughout Great Britain. ‘Came Ye O’er Frae France’ is one of the most witty of the songs, and is packed with cryptic metaphorical and allegorical references.” Here’s a sample of the challenges facing the modern reader/listener:
Though the claith were bad, blythly may we niffer;
Gin we get a wab, it makes little differ.
We hae tint our plaid, bannet, belt and swordie,
Ha’s and mailins braid — but we hae a Geordie!
Fortunately for us, Prescott developed a virtual glossary to help us appreciate the scathing wit. The abridged translation goes something like this: “George I was a libertine who fucked fat broads, skinny broads and men—and if no one was around, he greased his willy and had a great time all by his little ol’ lonesome. Never fear, however, for someday James III is going to waltz across the Channel and put his perverted German ass out to pasture.”
Though the lyrics may reflect the bawdy ridicule of low comedy, the music reflects the dark determination that characterizes members of an underground movement—the steady tempo of the martial snare drum navigating the multiple time signatures, sweeping all obstacles in its path; the minor key intensified by the rapid-fire picking of dulcimer and mandolin; the harmonium in deep background implying a grim fight ahead; the occasional bursts of rough electric guitar capturing the bubbling, righteous anger. Most noticeably, Maddy Prior sings with the utter resolve of the Jacobite fully committed to exposing the outrageous fraud (in her opinion) of King George’s reign. I can easily picture her hiding like Hamlet behind the arras, ready to plunge a dagger into the heart of any King’s soldier unlucky enough to stand too close.
After two songs of grief and grim determination, Steeleye Span made a wise choice to end the festivities with the charming melody of “Hares on the Mountain” [Roud 329; Ballad Index ShH63; VWML CJS2/10/1129; Wiltshire 837; trad.]. Bob Johnson plays the role of an old man longing for his tomcat days with obvious relish. The electric guitar-mandolin duet that supports the verses and expands into a flurry-filled instrumental passage highlights the marvelous picking skills of Johnson and Peter Knight, and the cheery fade of harmonium and mandolin is pure melodic delight. “Hares on the Mountain” is certainly light, but a very nice bookend to an album that spans a wide range of sound and mood.
I was shocked—shocked!—to realize that it had been seven years since my review of Below the Salt. Steeleye Span picked up where Fairport Convention left off, extending the boundaries of folk music and increasing its appeal to music fans on both sides of the Atlantic. The richness of their music is undeniable, the talent of the band members remarkable and their legacy both assured and well-deserved. With its exceptional musicianship and well-crafted arrangements, Parcel of Rogues was another superb addition to their catalog.
I hereby apologize for my negligence and promise to explore more of their music in comparatively short order.