Featured Album – Graceland – Paul Simon (Part One)

Ordinarily when I write about a featured album, it’ s only one post. In this case, I’m going to do two, not necessarily because Graceland is such a great album, but because the story around it is so big, so relevant and so damned interesting. Over time, Graceland has become a beloved album, more or less stripped of its controversy. But at the time of its release in 1986, it was almost nothing *but* controversy. 

Part one of this series will deal with the controversy; part two with the music. I’ll break with tradition and do both posts in one day, Part One now, Part Two later today. 

South African trombonist and anti-apartheid activist Jonas Gwangwa summed up the thoughts of countless black artists when confronted with Graceland’s success: “So, it has taken another white man to discover my people?”

“In South Africa, we had no opportunity,” recalled saxophonist Barney Rachabane in 2012, “You could have dreams, but they never come true. It really destroys you. But Graceland opened my eyes and set a tone of hope in my life.”

Graceland was released in 1986, some sixteen years after Simon and Garfunkel broke up, fourteen years after Simon’s second solo album, Paul Simon. (An album called The Paul Simon Songbook was released in the UK in 1965 but Paul Simon is considered to be the real beginning of his solo career.)

Up through his 1983 album Hearts and Bones, Simon had been playing what was for him fairly traditional fare. So, folk songs, pop songs, love songs. His solo recorded output tended to be less melancholy and often more fun and upbeat than traditional S&G fare. (E.g,. “Kodachrome,” “Love Me Like a Rock,” “Late In the Evening.”) One of his few ventures into what we might today call “world” music was S&G’s 1970 release, “El Cóndor Pasa.”

Hearts and Bones was – to quote AllMusic – a commercial disaster. Minus any real hit – and due somewhat to a listening audience who had perhaps tired of his sound – the album didn’t sell well. (Much of it was about his failed relationship with ex-wife Carrie Fisher.) Robert Christgau – always ready with a snarky, dismissive quote – said it was a “finely wrought dead end.” Simon clearly needed a hit. (It didn’t help that his last reunion tour with Art Garfunkel was contentious or that his marriage had fallen apart.)

As luck or fate would have it, in 1984, Simon heard a bootleg tape of South African township music which intrigued him.* He was especially fascinated by a group called the Boyoyo Boys.** And so in late 1985, he and long-time producer Roy Halee decided to make a trip to Johannesburg to work with local musicians. This whole thing was not necessarily an unalloyed pleasure for Simon, however. There were two controversies associated with this album.

One was the idea of what we now call cultural appropriation, which Wikipedia defines as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.”

Worse yet, Simon went to South Africa to record the album with local musicians, ignoring an international boycott set in place by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee. He was friends with Harry Belafonte who advised him to let the African National Congress (ANC) know. Simon felt that he didn’t need permission from anyone to record with other musicians. He decided to go to South Africa, never telling Belafonte he was going. “The voice of the artist is supreme,” he said.

Just one year prior, Steve Van Zandt – having recently left the E Street Band – formed a group called Artists United Against Apartheid. There appears to have been another similarly-named organization, Artists Against Apartheid, founded by a South African media personality named Dali Tambo.

On hearing of Simon’s proposed trip, Tambo said it was “not helpful.” In his and many other people’s minds, Simon’s good intentions were not sufficient to overcome the revulsion against apartheid. Playing anywhere anytime with any South African musicians was, as far as they were concerned, tantamount to siding with the racist government.

And so into this quagmire stepped Paul Simon. Wittingly, BTW. He was well aware that he might be accused of ripping off the local black musicians. Per Rolling Stone, Simon insisted that all of his fellow musicians were there on their own free will and paid fairly. (In fact, well above scale.)

“I wasn’t going there to take money out of the country,” he explained to The Washington Post. “I wasn’t being paid for playing to a white audience. I was recording with black groups and paying them and sharing my royalties with them.”

The article continues: “To some, he represented a rebellious hero taking a stand against bureaucracy and totalitarian regimes; to other, he was a naïve fool who undermined the anti-apartheid cause. Still more felt he was a little more than a common thief. “The intensity of the criticism really did surprise me,” he reflected years later. “Part of the criticism was ‘Here’s this white guy from New York, and he ripped off these poor innocent guys.'”

“I knew I would be criticized if I went, even though I wasn’t going to record for the government … or to perform for segregated audiences,” he told The New York Times. “I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired.”

“I’m with the artists,” he said in a different interview. “I didn’t ask the permission of the ANC. I didn’t ask permission of [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi, or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government. And to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed.”

In late 1985 – right around the time Simon was traveling to Johannesburg – Steve Van Zandt spearheaded the recording of a song called “Sun City.” Sun City was a resort in South Africa in a township to which the local black populace had been forcibly relocated.

You got to say I, I, I
Ain’t gonna play Sun City
I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City
Everybody say I, I, I
Ain’t gonna play Sun City
I, I, I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City

Ironically, Van Zandt had initially invited Simon to perform on “Sun City.” But an early draft of the lyrics had negative things to say about Simon’s friend Linda Ronstadt who had played the resort. Like Simon, she had refused to be told what to do. (But her act feels different to me as she was violating the boycott to play for white audiences. Simon was doing it to play with black musicians. To the ANC it was all the same.)

Ronstadt also got paid the hefty sum of $500,000 to appear. (For the record, per a contemporaneous article in Rolling Stone, Simon twice turned down million-dollar offers to play Sun City.)

In defense of Ronstadt, Simon refused to perform on “Sun City,” and – more irony – Ronstadt sang on Graceland on the tune “Under African Skies.” Needless to say, her presence was considered to be a “slap in the face.” (Simon’s stance throughout this episode is fairly consistent. But here he appears to be putting friendship ahead of the cause.)

And now here’s where it gets really interesting. Van Zandt – despite his falling out with Simon – may well have saved his life. A Soweto militant group had a hit list on top of which was the name Paul Simon. After a lengthy discussion, Van Zandt convinced them to spare Simon’s life reasoning that killing him would only make things worse. (Van Zandt would happily whack guys left and right some years later on The Sopranos.)

Despite all this, in early 1985, Simon and producer Halee headed to South Africa to record an album that Simon could only hope would end his musical drought and restore him to relevancy. It was a total gamble on Simon’s part, one of those “go big or go home” moments artists sometimes face when their back is against the wall.

Next – Graceland: The music and the legacy.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, documentary Under African Skies.

*The tape was loaned to him by NYC singer-songwriter Heidi Berg on the advice of Saturday Night Live chief Lorne Michaels. She wound up getting a gold record for her inspiration but not much else. She was not happy with this and felt that she should have gotten some royalties.

**The song “Gumboots” from the album is a re-recording of one of the songs Simon first heard.


29 thoughts on “Featured Album – Graceland – Paul Simon (Part One)

      1. Lizzy Mercier Descloux was one of the first artist who played with the concept of “World Music”. She released 1984 an unexpected hit single called “Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles?,” which had backing vocals from South African musicians. Shortly after this effort, Paul Simon released “Graceland”, which had an eerily similar approach and sound.


        1. Interesting. If Simon knew of this, I didn’t find any hint of it in my research. He seems to have been heavily influenced by that tape. But who knows? Maybe some of her stuff was on there.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. At the time this album came out, I had no idea about the controversy. I just loved the music. This was definitely a great read to learn about the back story of the album. Can’t wait to read your thoughts on the album itself.


    1. Ha! Well my thoughts are it’s great. 😀 But what I do in the second post is feature some of the music, give some backstory and bring closure to it. Question – were you unaware of the controversy till this post or had you learned more about it in the intervening years?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually, I didn’t know the extent of it until this post. I remember seeing some stuff before but had no idea the level of it. That is why I found so interesting. To think someone put a hit on Simon is incredible.


        1. Yea, it shows you how pissed off these guys were (understandably) about apartheid. Not clear if they knew exactly who he was but they just did not care. If they did know, they must have realized that killing a celebrity of his stature would send a very loud statement.

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  2. “Robert Christgau – always ready with a snarky, dismissive quote”…. Yeah. As Sonic Youth sang: “I don’t know why / You wanna impress Christgau / Ah let that shit die / And find out the new goal”.
    I think Lou Reed said something a lot more direct but can’t find it.
    Great post, it seems so odd in hindsight that so much controversry and, as you point out, murderous intent could come from what is, if memory serves, such a light-hearted / enjoyable album


    1. Tbe very moment I read Christgau’s statement that “Duane Allman plus Dickey Betts equals Jerry Garcia” I dismissed him as a fucking wanker. And as to this lighthearted album coming from such turmoil, it has often been thus that great artist plus angst equals great art.


  3. Interesting background story I had not been aware of or least don’t recall. I could definitely see why folks have different opinions about Simon’s choice to record in South Africa at the time.

    While one could cynically argue that Simon profited from the project at a time his career was stagnating, I do think there is an important difference between performing to white audiences in a country that suppressed its native black population at the time and working with the oppressed, if you will.

    Simon didn’t “steel” traditional music but worked together with African musicians and paid them. To what extent the result can be called authentic may be debatable. Frankly, I don’t know anything about traditional South African music to answer that question.

    What I do know is that “Graceland” is an amazing record. In fact, based on what I know about Simon’s catalog, I would go as far as calling it his best work – by far!

    I also have very fond memories of a show I saw in support of Graceland in Germany in the wake of the album’s release. In addition to the musicians who played with Simon on the record, the concert featured Miriam Makeba, who was from South Africa as well and I understand a legend there.

    Watching the genuine joy the African musicians derived from performing live was simply amazing and an experience I will never forget.


    1. The argument you’re making is more or less exactly the one that Simon was making. I was explaining this to a friend of mine last night. To bring it to the mundane, imagine a picket line where the union is on strike. If you cross that picket line, you are – in the eyes of the strikers – a “scab,” good intentions or no. So that’s all these guys cared about.


  4. Jim, just listening to the clip about the making of the song “Graceland,” which is on the 25th anniversary edition of the album. The album is available for streaming in Apple Music and I assume Spotify and other streaming platforms.

    It’s Paul Simon breaking down how the song came to be – pretty fascinating and possibly something you could use for your upcoming post in case you haven’t done so already.


    1. I’m pretty much done with that one. If you have a link, why don’t you post it in a comment after I post that one?


        1. Yeah, that is quite interesting. I have some of those quotes in the post. And now that I think about it, I recognize some of Paul’s narrative from the documentary “Under African Skies.” This recording is also on at least one of the two full recording of the album I posted. Thanks. Great stuff.


  5. Nicely done- I was young when this came out and had little idea of the complexities surrounding it. It’s akin to (but not EXACTLY like) debating whether Clapton and the Stones were ripping off Buddy Guy, et al, or honoring them and rejuvenating their careers (yes to both, probably). Thanks for this.


    1. Agreed. You are spot on about that. I was discussing that exact thing with a friend the other night. That debate has gone on for ages. But of course, there was no boycott in the case of the bluesmen. I think that the white English rockers came at the blues with a great deal of love and respect. They made sure the artists’ names were on the songs (Jimmy Page, maybe not always) and added them to their tours. This same friend went to see the Stones in, I think, ’72, saw BB King (who he’d never heard of) open and went out the next day and bought every BB album in sight. The Stones refused to play the music show ‘Shindig’ unless Howling Wolf could go on there. But all that said, it’s certainly true that the estimable Sam Phillips said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” The shame isn’t that the white rockers covered the black musicians. The shame, I think, is that they HAD to in order to get attention to that music at all. And at the end of the day – like Paul Simon’s situation – it helped break down racial barriers.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What I know on this is just what you wrote. Totally ignorant on the story. I did know the Steve thing and everything that entailed. I dug the ‘Sun City’ song and video at the time. Still do. You are educating CB as usual. Interesting piece and you do the research as usual.


    1. Quite the story isn’t it, CB? I knew the Van Zandt ‘Sun City’ thing, totally did not know about the death threat stuff. Some serious shit. Part two is posted if you haven’t seen it

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      1. When it comes down to it Doc it’s about the music (CB the broken Record). This music obviously speaks to you. I remember being in the “Artists Against Apartheid” camp. It was pretty polarizing. I remember a lot of artists took flack. Steve pulled together so many people I dug. Bruce walking and singing with Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin was so cool. One of the best (if not best) books I’ve read is Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. Don’t forget that great humanitarian Ginger Baker’s contribution. Keep working the keyboard.


        1. You are going to think I’m some kind of cave dwelling Neanderthal but I’m not that familiar with the music. Never spent any time with it. What I’ve heard i like. Maybe you are going to open up some more new doors for my musical mind.


  7. Really? Huh! Well, the full album link is on the page. Give it a spin when you get a chance. I know you to be a straight-up guy. Give us your opinion. Truthfully, as much as I like this album, I’m not nearly as crazy about it as some folks I know. That said, I am overall a huge, huge Simon and S&G fan. There’s a reason they gave Simon the first Gershwin prize.

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    1. Moody Blues, Paul Simon…? Who next? I will definitely give it a spin. The MB is still sounding in the brain. With the Simon, Beatles etc was this partly a result of your Sis’s influence?


      1. Beatles, 100% sis. Huge Beatlemaniac to this day. S&G and Moody Blues, not so much. S&G were huge and they just resonated with me. She may have had an album or two but I’m pretty sure that was my own path. Moody Blues too. I can’t remember her saying a word about the Moodies.

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