The (Jewish) Sounds of Simon— Part II: Going to Graceland

In the first installment, we looked at the Jewish content of Simon’s work on his five albums with Art Garfunkel. Here, we will deal with next phase of his career— the six albums that took Simon from the breakup with his singing partner in 1970 to the universally acknowledged highlight that is his Graceland album in 1986. 

If he only had the hits from this part of his story, Simon would still be the man who wrote: “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “Kodachrome,” “Something So Right,” “American Tune,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Late in the Evening,” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.” (I would link to clips of these songs, but chances are you can hear them in your head just by reading their titles.)

Simon, in fact, recorded a solo album back in 1965 titled Songbook, but most of those songs ended up being worked into Simon and Garfunkel albums.

On his first post-Garfunkel album, titled simply Paul Simon, he tells a Boxer-like story, this time of a young man named Lincoln Duncan who encounters “a young girl in a parking lot, preaching to a crowd… reading from a Bible.”

That young preacher also sings “sacred songs,” one of which may have been a late 1800s hymn called “It Is Well With My Soul,” which begins: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way…” Which, in turn, is a quote from Isaiah 66:12: “Behold, I will extend her peace like a river…” Simon’s song that uses that image, “Peace Like a River,” seems to refer to a peace march winding its way “through a city.” 

His follow-up album, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, has cover art by the great Jewish graphic designer Milton Glaser, famous for his “I [Heart] NY” T-shirts. Whatever Jewish content may be found in the songs is strictly thematic. “Tenderness” is about softening criticism, “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” is about social consideration, and “Learn How to Fall” is about hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. “American Tune” is about America being a place of refuge and hope, an idea Jews can well appreciate: “We come in the age’s most uncertain hour/ And sing an American Tune.”

Simon’s third solo album won a Grammy and its title spawned a popular expression: Still Crazy After All These Years. The most Jewish track on this album is one of his most Jewish overall. Titled “Silent Eyes,” it is a profound, and profoundly sad, meditation on Jerusalem: “Silent eyes watching Jerusalem make her bed of stones… Jerusalem weeps alone. She is sorrow… she burns like a flame, and she calls my name.”

There is another reference, perhaps, to the Kotel in an earlier track, “My Little Town.” The song, his last duet with Garfunkel, opens: “In my little town/ I grew up believing/ God keeps His eye on us all/ And He used to lean upon me/ As I pledged allegiance to the Wall.”

Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy,” meanwhile, contains an actual prayer: “Here I am, Lord, knocking at Your gates/ I know, I ain’t got no business here/ But You said if I ever got so low I was busted/ You could be trusted.” 

Have a Good Time” also asks for blessing, although more cynically: “God bless the good we were given/ And God bless the U.S. of A./ And God bless our standard of livin’/ Let’s keep it that way.” 

It should also be noted that, while the music on “Gone at Last” is decidedly gospel, Simon’s duet partner was Jewish singer-songwriter Phoebe Snow.

Simon then took a break from the studio to make a movie, One-Trick Pony, but went back in to record the soundtrack. The movie asked the question: “What if Simon hadn’t become famous?” which it answered, “He’d be leading a bar band.” And in that band was Jewish bass virtuoso Tony Levin; Simon’s character in the movie was Jonah Levin. 

That may be the source for the character’s last name; what about the first? It’s about being consumed by his passion for his art. In the song “Jonah,” he explains: “They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale… I know Jonah, he was swallowed by a song.” The soundtrack also features the songs “That’s Why God Made the Movies” and “God Bless the Absentee

Simon’s pre-Graceland album, Hearts and Bones, may be the first place Simon refers to himself as a “Jew.” The title track introduces, in its opening lines, its story’s characters: “One and one-half wandering Jews.” The “one-half” most likely refers to his wife, actress Carrie Fisher, whose father was the Jewish crooner Eddie Fisher (Simon and Fisher were married less than a year). 

(And is there a more Jewish worry than the lyric: “Maybe I think too much”? Should he think about that… or not?!?) 

Which brings us to Graceland. The title track is one of Simon’s personal favorites of his own work. While even the geographic clues indicate the journey is to Elvis’ mansion, the song overall is clearly about a pilgrimage toward redemption.

The other major hit from the album, “You Can Call Me Al,” is about a man finding himself in unfamiliar situations. By the third verse, he is in a “foreign” land. At first, he is disconcerted and off-balance, “surrounded by the sounds,” and even “cattle in the marketplace.” Then, he sees “angels in the architecture.” While still “spinning in infinity,” he’s now happy to be experiencing this dizzying newness: “He says: ‘Amen and Hallelujah!’”

(In the next installment, we will continue to search for references to Jewish people, places, and phrases in Paul Simon’s work… from after Graceland to his 2016 release, Stranger to Stranger.)

Paul Wieder photo 2013
Paul Wieder is putting Jewish music on your playlist! Plus updates on Jewish music festivals, reviews of Jewish music websites and blogs, and insights from Jewish music producers and promoters. Let’s make Jewish music part of your well-balanced musical diet!... Read More

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