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Travel Paul Simon’s father-son trip to Graceland

Going to Graceland is somewhat of a cliché, and that’s exactly why Paul Simon rejected the notion when he was coming up with his epic track. “I kept singing ‘I’m going to Graceland’, and every time I’d sing it I’d think well I’m not going to keep that,” Simon explains, “This is not going to be a song about Elvis Presley.”

But some things simply stick, and the hum would budge. It wove its way into Simon’s unconscious mind and slowly he began to see it as a calling. “I thought Geez, I can’t get this out of my head.” Suddenly, a pilgrimage was afoot. “I better go down Graceland and see if there’s something that this song is telling me I should investigate by going there,” Simon’s hum concluded. 

However, this is not a tale about visiting the home of Elvis Presley, this is as much about getting there as it is about arriving. At the time, when this Graceland idea was seeded, Simon was holed up in a Louisiana studio recording in a shack behind a music store. Things were going well, but with his muse bolting off to see the gaudy domicile of the King, he wondered whether a short trip up Highway 61 in a hired car with his son might make things go even better. 

“That [roadtrip] was where the ‘Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar’ came from,” Simon explains, “It was literally in front of me.” Indeed, it is. And that notion is just about as multifaceted a vignette as you can get. With ravines that run ragged like broken strings, and a glinting surface that shines with a polished hue under the twilight sun, the outstretched river in places around Vicksburg and Rolling Fork really does look like a shimmering guitar humming its own song.

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Thus, it’s fitting why they call it ‘The Highway of the Blues’. Showered along your route are endless blues bars, the B.B. King Museum, Robert Johnson’s reported gravestone and his Devil’s Crossroads, the Delta Blues Museum, countless juke joints of note and eateries with references to Otis Spann or John Hurt in their name. This is the heart of American culture, all sprawled out and lined with crooked Tupelo trees, a lowering moon, hot air, and the dust trail of others making their way north. 

Mythical places are possible at any junction, and the root of rock ‘n’ roll lore seems an ever-present reality as you glimpse the spot where Johnson liaised with Lucifer on a fateful corner at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49. There may be a Wendy’s just around the corner, but bar the encroachment of commercial capitalism, these lands still hold a sense of timeless awe and tales to be told. Like the song that spawned from Simon’s trip, the notion of writing your own never seems too far away. 

In this sense, Highway 61 renders guidebooks redundant. Sure, all the spots above are worth a visit, and in its own strange ‘nothing to see here’ sense, the Devil’s Crossroads is a must experience rather than a muse see. However, the triumph of the short six-hour drive is that unspooling history in the vistas that flash by your window—a ride along the songbook of American culture.

(Credit: Sun Studios)

Simon wasn’t alone in putting his finger on this. Sam Cooke’s song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ begins with the opening line: “I was born by the river, in a little tent, and just like that river, I’ve been running ever since.” The river in question is the Mississippi, which makes it perhaps the most profoundly multifaceted motif in music history. 

It can be argued that the Mississippi Delta is where modern music benevolently flowed out from into the world, but likewise, it was one of the most violently racially divided regions in modern history, setting a fluid current of fear in motion amongst the black denizens. Aside from those two notable brushstrokes in the motif, there are myriad more pertaining to the tides of change, the unburdened flow of the soul and so on until the infinities of personal corroborations are all but dried up. Cooke’s poetry isn’t at all fanciful on the road from which it was borne, it has an eerie prescience. 

For Simon, this education was a bonding experience between him and his son. It was littered with memories and the tales of a nation. And then comes the culminating pin drop of the King’s old haunt. “And then I went to Graceland,” Simon says. “I didn’t tell anybody I was coming. I didn’t get any special treatment. I just waited in line… I was singularly unimpressed.” The gaudy glitz and glam of the museum is built in the image of Elvis’ second phase when his original tenets had been shed for a patent leather pastiche. It seems incongruous with what has come before it on the dirt roads of America’s backstory.

However, when you finally grapple with it, the whole narrative catches up with you. Just as Simon asserts: “I came outside and there’s his grave and it said, ‘Elvis Presley whose music touched millions of people all around the world’, and I read that and I just started to cry, I mean this guy was loved by everybody.” He was the end of a journey and the start of a new one. That much is clear when you arrive at the end of your journey and start another on the path home, fresh but for the rings around your eyes.

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