Saturday, July 14, 2007

The World of Paul Simon

Everybody knows "El Condor Pasa," the Top Twenty hit for Simon & Garfunkel from 1970, which is a Peruvian folk song dating back to the 18th century for which Simon wrote new folkie lyrics, but fewer know "Duncan," from Simon's first solo album, Paul Simon, which stalled at Number 58 on the charts in 1972, and which also appropriated those Andean pipes but basically just used them as accents for a more typical Simon song, this one with lyrics akin to "The Boxer," about a poor boy emigrating from the Atlantic coast of Canada to the coldhearted U.S. of A. The latter was more successful, it seems to me, because Simon was using those world-music elements to enhance his own work, meeting them halfway rather than just copying them, as he did with "El Condor Pasa."

That also seems to me to be why Graceland worked so well. Simon could have just covered some South African tunes for that record, but instead, it's full of great Paul Simon songs goosed to further life by those outstanding South African musicians and singers, the bodegas and the lights on Upper Broadway mingling with the Township Jive. That album's one lyrical bow to Africa, "Under African Skies," was also its yuckiest: "Joseph's face was black as the night, and the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes." No thanks.

Wouldn't you rather stick to metrically precise references to the cinematographer's party? It's not exactly African, but it sure does work.

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