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The Story Behind the Song: Paul Simon’s journey to ‘Graceland’

In the early 1980s, Simon’s relationship with Art Garfunkel was turning bitter. His marriage to Carrie Fisher had collapsed, the 1983 album Heart of Bones had been a commercial failure, and was critically middling at best. Naturally, Simon found himself in a less-than-rosy place. 

Then, in 1984, a watershed moment occurred in his life and career. Through simple happenstance, Simon was exposed to a bootleg cassette by a South African street musician by the name of Mbaqanga. In a way that only music can, he found himself spiritually sideswiped by the music in a melee of discovery that eventually led him to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he would record with a number of the street musicians who spawned his fascination and embalmed him with the comforting boon of endorphin-inducing sonic exuberance. 

And yet the title track of the album the trip spawned traverses a journey of a different kind. Befittingly, however, in a musical sense, the song is the ultimate cohesion of Americana and South African music, and once combined with the narrative of the song it encapsulated Paul Simon’s climb from despair in a way that verges on the mystic. 

“Graceland is really the true hybrid of South American music and American,” Simon explains to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In as much, it represented the creative culmination of his career to that point.

Simon has always been an incremental songwriter, layering initial moments of inspiration with craft to produce polished finished products. The melody for the song was well underway thanks to the input of his South African cohorts, but words were lacking. “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.”

However, the lyric proved to etch itself indelibly on his psyche, it simply wouldn’t budge from the hum of the unconscious mind and Simon saw this as somewhat of a calling. “I thought Geez, I can’t get this out of my head.” Then in a leap of fate that seems rather fanciful (but it is now a beloved classic so who are we to judge), he thought that he best visit the home of Elvis. “I better go down Graceland and see if there’s something that this song is telling me I should investigate by going there.”

At the time he had been recording in Louisianna with the local band Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters. He had caught the zydeco band playing live and was so enamoured with their performance that he decided to record ‘That Was Your Mother’ with them in a small studio behind a music store. Knowing that Memphis, Tennessee, was just up Highway 61 (another of music’s most famous roads to throw into the mystic mix) he hired a car and drove up to Graceland. 

“That [roadtrip] was where the ‘Mississippi delta was shining like a nation guitar’ came from,” Simon explains, “It was literally in front of me.” He then continues, “And then I went to Graceland,” which at this time had been converted into a museum following the death of Elvis. “I didn’t tell anybody I was coming. I didn’t get any special treatment. I just waited in line… I was singularly unimpressed.”

Then the fateful moment occurred that seemed to be the crystalising happenstance that Simon was waiting for to finish the song. “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.”

Thereafter Simon explains that everything fell into place. “The song started to write itself. It became a narrative. It became about this father and son journey to mend a broken heart and Graceland became more like a metaphor than an actual destination.” 

Likewise, in a profound sense of mirroring the song became a journey of redemption and rediscovery for Simon and ‘Graceland’ has since gone on to touch the lives of millions all over the world. The sense of hope that the track offered Simon means that he holds it close to his heart. As he concludes, “Everything poured into this song and made it one of the songs that I’m most proud of.”