The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war
I’m going to Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
NOTE: This post is a companion to my previous one lauding a recent (May 2018) biography of Paul Simon. I thought it would be cool to lay out some of my favorite tunes of his both solo and with Art Garfunkel. Picking six was impossible but what the hell. And for the record, when I do six-packs, I’m not saying “These are the best six” or these are necessarily even my favorites per se. Just six I dig and the list could be different on any given day.
While in London, Simon learned the song “Scarborough Fair” from English folk singer/guitarist Martin Carthy. S&G decided to weave it in with a reworking of an antiwar Simon tune called “The Side of a Hill” from Simon’s solo album.
Apparently, Garfunkel was responsible for reworking that tune’s melody and together they came to be known as “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.” Dylan also used parts of the song for “Girl From the North Country,” which he recorded several times, most notably with Johnny Cash on 1969’s Nashville Skyline. (Cash was a big Dylan fan and friend.)
Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
On the side of a hill in the deep forest green
Tracing of sparrow on snow-crested brown
Blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call
One of Simon’s greatest songs is “The Boxer” from Bridge Over Troubled Water. It would certainly be understandable if that’s what you thought the song was about. From the book: “‘The Boxer’ is a story of Simon’s own struggle and resilience, complete with New York City references. … It was a deeply personal account of his early anxiety as a budding songwriter. The story wasn’t addressing just Simon’s struggles in the music business but also his triumphs.
“Looking back, I don’t recall thinking I went through years of struggle,” he said. “I was never poor, and I had a family that loved me. But I have to say singing ‘his anger and his shame’ still makes me feel uncomfortable, so there must have been some anger and shame. I think some of the feelings in the song started when I was a kid; it wasn’t a traumatic injury you can point to, but there was something.”
It’s a beautiful, compelling song in both its writing and execution. Simon drops a hint regarding what the song is about when he says “In the quiet of the railway station running scared” an oblique reference to “sittin’ in a railway station” from “Homeward Bound.”
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down or cut him
‘Til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains
Bookends is an album that deals with aging. For some reason, the 25-year old Simon seemed to be feeling his mortality early. What wonders what the now 76-year-old Simon thinks of a line like “How terribly strange to be 70.” Yes, indeed, Paul.
There’s a song on the album called “Overs” that I’ve always loved whose every word I know and can sing much to the dismay of anyone who might ask me to do that. It’s about an aging couple for whom “there’s no laughs left ’cause we laughed them all. And we laughed them all in a very short time.”
In 1972, Simon released his eponymous second solo album. Now, one of the things that Simon could be fairly accused of in his S&G days is a certain melancholy, a feeling of perhaps taking himself too seriously. I don’t know what freed him up, whether maturity or not having a partner but his music got somewhat more fun as a solo artist.
In fact, we saw him in Boston at a theater in 2000 (51 bucks!) and it was one of the most fun, joyful experiences we’ve ever had at a show. There was an intimacy in that venue and you could tell Simon was digging it even when we lost power for a while.
Anyway, here’s one of my favorites, the reggae-inflected “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.” From the book: The “radical priest” referred to brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the antiwar Jesuit priests who were on the cover of Time magazine in the summer of 1971, but Simon changed it to Newsweek because it rhymed with “let the story leak.” (Note – Simon’s favorite baseball player was Mickey Mantle but he used Joe DiMaggio in “Mrs. Robinson” because of the number of syllables. So it goes.- ME)
He threw in some phrases just because he liked the sounds of them or enjoyed the challenge of fitting them into a pop song: phrases such as “the house of detention” and “Rosie, the queen of Corona.” (Corona is a neighborhood in Queens. I know. I used to live there. As did – when he died – Louis Armstrong.)
LIke all songwriters, Simon uses his personal relationships as fodder for his songs. What I like on “Something So Right” – a tribute to his first wife Peggy – is that while it’s a love song to her, he also points the finger back at himself.
When something goes wrong
I’m the first to admit it
I’m the first to admit it
But the last one to know
When something goes right
Well it’s likely to lose me
It’s apt to confuse me
It’s such an unusual sight
I can’t get used to something so right
Something so right
Finally, how can I resist doing something from Graceland? I cannot. In fact, let’s do that actual song. “Eventually I understood that the song is about why we are traveling to Graceland—to find out how to get healed—and that’s why I named the album Graceland. It seemed to be about finding something you could call a state of grace—the healing of a deep wound. And that’s what was going on in South Africa. There was a deep wound, and then an attempt at a healing process.”
Sources: Paul Simon: The LIfe. Copyright © 2018 by Robert Hilburn. Simon & Schuster, Wikipedia.