Bloomsbury Popular Music-“But people are strangers”: Lyric narratives and ethics on Paul Simon’
Music and the road
Music and the road

Gordon E. Slethaug

Gordon E. Slethaug is Professor at the University of Waterloo, Canada. He is the former Head of the English Department and former Associate Dean of Graduate Programs in Arts at Waterloo, as well as the former Director of American Studies at the University of Hong Kong. His published books include: International Teaching and Learning at Universities (2015); Adaptation Theory & Criticism: Postmodern Literature and Cinema in the USA (2014); Hit the Road, Jack: Essays on the Culture of the American Road (2012); Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction; and The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction (2000). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2017



Paul Simon



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“But people are strangers”: Lyric narratives and ethics on Paul Simon’s roads

DOI: 10.5040/9781501335297.0013
Page Range: 175–188

Although aficionados of Paul Simon’s music may not at first consider the road as a particularly dominant lyrical motif in the singer-songwriter’s expansive collection, Simon transforms the road into a space of and for narrative. That is, beyond being merely a symbolic setting, or site of contemplation, the road also becomes a space of complex and curious happenings for many of Simon’s speakers and narrators. Of course, contemplative moments still occur along Simon’s roads—his lyrics, famously cerebral, have often been cited for their “folk rock formalism and . . . academic poetic style” (Holden 73)—and such meditation is central to the shifting modes of ethical negotiation that this chapter argues are central to Simon’s road music. However, this mode of lyrical introspection, which is so pervasive in twentieth-century poetry, often manifests in Simon’s road lyrics by means of the careful mediation of experienced incidents—of events—on the road. I suggest, then, that when Simon does sing about the road, it typically comes into being through a conspicuously hybrid form, what James Phelan has identified as “lyric narrative.” If, for Phelan, lyric can be defined rhetorically as “somebody telling somebody else on some occasion about his or her meditations on something” (635), and narrative is “somebody telling somebody else on some occasion for some purpose(s) that something happened” (631), then lyric narrative occupies a space between the two. Indeed, Simon’s road lyrics persistently supplement and reimagine the American road narrative by mobilizing moments of contemplative critique that are specifically occasioned through the lyric form.

But what is the nature of such critique? How does the road become a space of transformative, or at least, alternative ethics? And alternative to what? This chapter examines the ways Simon’s road songs operate as modes of aesthetic wandering—that is, as texts that explore the uncertainty of the road as it oscillates between a space of escape and a site of encounter, where notions of the strange and the estranged are persistently negotiated, and where form itself wanders beyond established folk byways. In early songs, such as “America” and “Papa Hobo,” and later ones such as “Hearts and Bones” and “Graceland,” the road figures as a prominent site of ethical inquiry, but such ethics, I argue, are always productively intertwined with narrative (and musical) discourse. Paying particular attention to the ways Simon’s lyric narratives stage relationships and relationality on the road, this chapter asks how Simon’s songbook constructs the road lyric as an exploration of responsibility and, more largely, a dynamic search for an ethically viable version of America.

“America” and shared narrative construction

It is telling that Simon cites Chuck Berry as his “first really major influence” and that “Maybellene,” in particular “was one of [his] favorite Chuck Berry songs and records” (Zollo Songwriters, 93). The song invokes a powerful romance of American automobile culture in the mid-1950s. As the narrator is “motivatin’ over the hill” in his V-8 Ford, he lays his sights upon Maybellene in her Cadillac (lines 4–7). Here, the road manifests as a space of pursuit and male power: if the “openness” of the road signals a degree of mobile freedom for Berry’s speaker, then it is a freedom only available to him. Maybellene, by the end of the narrative, is “caught” (line 27), and the repeated refrain—“Oh, Maybellene, why can’t you be true?” (line 1)—further suggests that the road is no outlet, no escape from gendered power and the stasis of convention, but rather a space in which such conventions are repeated and re-inscribed.

In fact, Warren Belasco reads “Maybellene” as a reenactment of frontier identity formation. Drawing on George Pierson’s, The Moving Americans, Belasco argues that the “motivatin’” within Berry’s song is an expression of the regenerative “frontier-style movement” that operates within America even when the literal frontier is closed (263). Furthermore, according to Belasco, “Both mass motoring and African-American based popular music would take over where Turner’s West left off. . . . Each offered the crucial chance to ‘strip off the garments of civilization,’ . . . to reestablish contact ‘with the simplicity of primitive society’” (263). Through his invocation of Frederick Jackson Turner’s reductive (and ethically dubious) primitivism, Belasco neatly packages “Maybellene” within a familiar teleology of America. He hears in Berry’s song a narrative of progress, a progress marked by a “free” and rejuvenating movement toward a more dominant American character and life.

If the innocence of “Maybellene” rests in its energetic approval of masculine freedom on the road—a freedom constituted through an obverse, feminized lack—then Simon’s “America,” from the Bookends album, suggests a productive counter-narrative. Critics have pointed to its “panorama of restless, paved America” and its “drama of shared loneliness on a bus trip with cosmic implications” (Holden 73). Pete Fornatale similarly gestures at the ways its characters, Kathy and the unnamed narrator, navigate an ambivalent nation “between despair and hope, optimism and disillusionment” (89). But more than this, “America,” through its narrative structuring—through its insistence on dialogue rather than monologue, and through its self-consciously non-teleological sequences—presents a subtle yet forceful ethical revision of Berry’s frontier-style movements. In Simon’s song, as the couple moves through Michigan, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey, they do so in an effort “to look for America” together (line 4).

Notably, America is conceived in this lyric narrative as an ambiguously shared space. Throughout, the narrator attempts to dialogue, directly addressing his companion Kathy at multiple moments. Though Kathy directly responds only once, this dialogic attempt situates American space as potentially relational and plural rather than singular. Part and parcel to this spatial revision is the way the song questions the very physicality of America. The portability and ephemerality of the speaker’s “real estate” suggests an ironic awareness of America not as a physical land but as a metaphoric space (line 2). Michigan is not real; it is a “dream” (line 6). America is imagined only in terms of “look[ing]”—that is, as not yet fully conceived, conquered, or possessed. Indeed, from the very beginning, Simon’s song sets itself up as a contestation of frontier values that would privilege physical dominance over the land.

According to Turner,

to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. (227–28)

In Simon’s “America,” such embodied mastery is absent. Dominant individualism is replaced by sharing—of space, of dreams, and, importantly, of narrative itself. The bus, for example, is a space between spaces, a temporary a nd uncertain site whose ethical value derives not from a fixed destination that will ultimately be possessed but through the sharing of stories that occurs within it. During the song’s interlude, the “laughing” and “games” that Simon’s lovers play within the moving space represents a moment of shared narrative construction: the two collaboratively recreate a fellow passenger as a spy with a bowtie camera (lines 9–12). Here, characters adopt roles of both narrator and narratee; they both speak and listen to each other. The story-game, valuable insofar as it simultaneously attends to and lampoons the Cold War containment culture that produces such fear, testifies to the ways in which narrative mediates the exigencies of historical context. If Turner argues that the frontier occasions a demonstrable artistic “lack,” then the shared aesthetic of these two characters points in a decidedly different direction: that is to say, in the act of building a story together—however small and anecdotal—the two lovers actively compensate for their feelings of loss amid a dominant and “aching” narrative of fear that threatens to overwhelm them (line 18). Thus, this moment of storytelling, insofar as it reimagines the pair not as isolated from the world but as active participants in the construction of new story-worlds, revises Turnerian power as aesthetic power. More than this, it is a moment of mutuality as opposed to dominant individualism, where perspectives and voices, while not perfectly wedded, move closely toward each other, accountable as they are to the larger story that they can only tell together.

The interlude enacts, more abstractly, what I would like to call a moment of aesthetic wandering. To wander is to suggest an encounter with American space marked more by curiosity and engagement than linearity and closure. To wander is to defer progress, both national and narrational. Simon’s lyric narrative produces a decidedly different ethics from Berry’s “Maybellene” precisely because its discourse time slows down during the interlude to allow for this mutual story-game to occur. This bridge is also where narrative and lyric productively mingle: as listeners, we are confronted with a pause in the progression of the larger road narrative, though, curiously, this pause manifests as a story-within-a-story, or hypodiegetic narrative. The slowing of discourse time, in other words, engenders a narrative that is simultaneously progressing and not progressing. Whereas the vigorously advancing thrust of “Maybellene” is enacted through the straightforward recuperative transition from disequilibrium to equilibrium (Maybellene flees, Maybellene is caught), Simon’s discourse is much less sure of itself. Just as America is itself something only ever “look[ed] for” and never found, Simon’s discursive technique implicitly promotes a decelerated and aestheticized relationship with one’s national space.

The musical discourse of “America” is similarly germane to such wanderings. Musicologist James Bennighof notes that Simon “varies the harmonic focus on the tonic to convey varying degrees of motion that are expressed in the text” (35). Further, the idea of travel is itself constituted through a “bass line that focuses clearly on the tonic by traveling resolutely, one step per three-beat measure, down the scale from the tonic note D to the subdominant note G” (35). This bass line is repeated throughout the song, but as Bennighof observes, its repetition is also marked by variation. During the bridge, it is “slightly altered” and in the final verse it is juxtaposed with “some varied harmonies” (35, 36). On one level, such modified iterations signal the productive possibilities of aesthetic wandering: just as the lovers’ story-games allow them to manage a dominant cultural fear by playfully reimagining a nonthreatening form of otherness, the bass line variations suggest a creative encounter with sonic “difference.”

On another level, such musical repetition may in fact work as an important counterpoint to the narrative text. Bennighof argues that the bass descent “emphasizes that time is passing once again” (35). Indeed, the interlude, with its slowing of discourse time, is also an attempt on one diegetic level to “kill time.” On the bus, the lovers “play games with the faces” and later “look at the scenery” (lines 10,15). If the musical discourse is thus reminding its listeners of time’s forward movement, Simon’s characters themselves are at odds with such progression. They prefer to linger within the moment—and within the space of the bus itself—and allow their imaginations to wander beyond the limitations of the temporalized space in which they find themselves.

In this sense, the musical counterpoint helps to generate a significant temporal dimension to the story-world against which the two lovers implicitly differentiate themselves through their shared acts of narrative construction, on the one hand, and personal acts of chrono-resistance, on the other. Significantly, Simon also offers conspicuous geographical markers that differentiate his characters’ travel from the westward push of the American frontier. The song’s spatial movements track roughly eastward, from Michigan to Pittsburgh to New Jersey. For Turner, American development is constituted through the spatio-temporal movement West:

The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution. It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system. (198)

If Turner’s thesis relies upon a teleology of national development that clearly privileges the move West into “free lands” (211), Simon’s “America” is, in essence, a symbolic move backward. Subtly, Simon’s narrative dissociates itself from Turner’s social evolutionary model whose “progress from savage conditions” relies upon an uncomfortable slippage from contact to trespass to cultural extermination (Turner 202). Instead, Simon’s ethics are constituted through moments of intra-narrative responsibility. Not only is the interlude’s moment of shared story construction predicated upon the capacity to remain accountable to another’s imaginative constructs but, at the same time, one’s aesthetic wanderings are consistently accompanied by limitations: the reality of (musical) time emphasized by the repeated bass line punctures the illusion of complete freedom or escape from one’s national (con)text.

A note on “Papa Hobo” and unnarrated autopia

Whereas in “America,” narrative deceleration constitutes a significant ethical revision of national identity formation, in “Papa Hobo” narrative progression all but stops. While there are small, momentary happenings within the song, it does in large part tend toward lyric within the lyric-narrative hybrid model. In and of itself, this is no remarkable thing; however, the relative stasis of the song helps to communicate a heightened critique of its subject matter: the failed autopia of Detroit, or what urban critics from as early as the 1950s would call “an empty dream” (Foster “Automobile”, 34). The imagistic quality of Simon’s lyrics produces a potent disjunctive effect, as the epicenter of American automotive culture—with its concomitant promise of movement—idles amid the smog. This immobility is emphasized through Simon’s shortened line-phrases, often constructed as standalone prepositional phrases (“In the morning” [line 4]), ambiguous imperatives (“Sweep up” [line 11]), apostrophes (“Detroit, Detroit” [line 15]), and other various nonprogressive grammatical constructions. Whereas a song such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” is similarly critical of an urban space that exists as an antithesis to mobility, calling it a “death trap” and “suicide rap” (lines 6–7), Simon’s lyric is no paean to car culture or its liberating possibilities.

Laurence Goldstein suggests that poets of the road face a particular challenge when attempting to communicate road experience through lyric: “Traversal of the open road has the paradoxical effect of making elements of the landscape more organically related—hurled together in the field of vision an accelerated speed—and more discrete because seen by glimpses” (237). Simon, unlike Springsteen, disengages. He removes the speed from automotive culture, and, as such, transforms the autopia into a contemplative and disjunctive space. In fact, the series of disconnected images that comprises Detroit in this particular song produces not merely a dystopic setting, but an “unnarrated” space.[1] It is a space of indeterminacy, of gaps, where story presents itself but then quickly disappears. The second (and final) verse, in particular, presents us with situations that both demand and refuse narrativization as the narrator hints at events and actants but never wholly follows through. Who is Papa Hobo? How has the speaker been “sweeping up tips” (line 12)? What did the weatherman lie about in Detroit? Bennighof asks similar questions, concluding that the song “epitomizes Simon’s inclination to make use of textual ideas that seem intriguing in their own right, regardless of the degree to which they can be synthesized into a coherent narrative or message” (57). While I agree with this formulation, I would also argue that such questions are the consequence of a text that challenges the very ethics of interpretive synthesis. That is to say, by suggesting the possible presence of narrative without revealing it, the song demands that we withhold our interpreting selves; it solicits moments of interpretive self-abnegation where we might refuse to impose our own forms of narrative closure upon the disjunctive space-as-other. Whereas “America” privileges shared acts of narrative construction, “Papa Hobo” questions such co-creation between audience and teller. The text implicitly resists our interpretive mastery over it; the story-world, because of its implied-yet-missing incidents, is unknowable. This is, in essence, another layer to the idea of aesthetic wandering discussed above. “Papa Hobo’s” simultaneous opposition to and invocation of narrative offers its listeners potential imaginative pathways without ever forcing one upon them. And while, in a sense, “free,” these interpretive wanderings are still ultimately accountable to the reality of the lyrical unnarration.

Ethics of distance in “Hearts and Bones”

“Hearts and Bones,” released in 1982, returns to a more conjunctive narrative structure. As with “America,” it tells the story of two lovers; however, here they are older, married then separated, traveling to the American Southwest and back again. A mature song in both subject and structure, it is less concerned with the discovery of a shared place within the American space than it is with the borders—physical and affective—that arise between people who may no longer be able to share narratives. When writing about this song in particular, critics often move quickly to biography—a mode of explication in which Simon himself has participated. Simon has famously noted that the song’s first line, “One and one half wandering Jews,” was written about his former wife, Carrie Fisher, who was half Jewish (Zollo Songwriters on Songwriting, 100).

Still, the song is much richer, narratologically, when we consider more fully the opening scene in which those one-and-a-half Jews wander through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico. Unlike “America,” this narrative is told extra-diegetically in the present tense, with zero (panoramic) focalization. This perspectival separation from the scene engenders an expansiveness to the national space that is augmented through the narrator’s diction: the repetition of “wandering,” for example, removes any presupposed linearity from the journey and also productively juxtaposes against the structural signification attached to “the arc of a love affair” that is the two lovers’ relationship (line 9). Further, by repeatedly invoking the character of the wandering Jew, the text moves toward a contemplation of diaspora itself. To construct identity here as diasporic is to recognize American identity as always already spatialized—as constituted through the navigation of one’s setting. Interestingly, this follows a key Turnerian assumption that construes spatial identity as predicated upon the idea of the Western frontier “as the line of most rapid and effective Americanization” (188). For Turner, America is thus an assimilative space, whereas Simon indicates the ways American space may constitute and reaffirm alterity. The Spanish “Sangre de Cristo” engenders a significant border within the text: the diasporic Jewish identity does not superficially “belong” here culturally or religiously (line 5). That’s not to say the space is uninviting; certainly, the rainbows and “mountain passes slipping into stone” suggest the opposite (lines 10–11). But the apposition of Spanish and English does gesture toward the heterogeneity of American space and, moreover, to the idea that intercultural spaces cannot ever be perfectly reduced or comprehended by a singular, monological perspective.

Subsequently, Simon’s panoramic narrative technique contributes a substantial ethical layer to the text that would otherwise be lost were the focalization internal. Though it subsumes both characters’ individual perspectives, it does not synthesize them into a cohesive and coherent whole. As with the heterogeneous space, the larger narration is dialogic. The song’s bridge, for example, observes interpersonal resentment in terms of unbridgeable space: the characters resist each other’s plans and, subsequently, question each other’s love (29–40). By construing the failing relationship through a decidedly spatial rhetoric (a possible trip to Mexico), where the reluctance to cross national borders reflects a larger inability to traverse intersubjective borders, and where wandering transforms from an act of interpersonal and (inter)national discovery into a potentially isolating experience, the lyric narrative effectively contemplates the potential incommensurability of diasporic identities within and between themselves. To ask, in other words, why one cannot love another for “where I am” is to recognize that the ethical problem of how to love—of how to be with another person—is a problem exacerbated by the shared experience of space, rather than solve d by it (line 40). While for Turner American identity is redeemed through coordinated and collective travel westward, in “Hearts and Bones,” such shared moments on the road lead to more entrenched, guarded borders.

The song ultimately bears out this separation. By the end of the narrative the wanderers “return to their natural coasts” (line 43), the pluralized noun affirming that they have not returned to the same coast. Key to Simon’s larger lyrical voice across his oeuvre, according to Paul Zollo, is his capacity to “hold both sides of a question at once” or “demonstrate a marriage of opposites” (Songwriters on Songwriting, 88). Such Frostian ambivalence (consider poems such as “Fire and Ice” and “Home Burial”) is, in “Hearts and Bones,” a consequence of the narrative focalization. The simultaneous vision of both actors and both coasts removed from one another solicits an aesthetic experience more in line with witnessing than judgment. Though the characters’ emotional call and response shows that they are participating in a difficult process of judging each other, Simon’s larger narrative does not ask the same of its audience; rather, we quietly observe, withholding ourselves from choice, wandering between perspectives. The “arc of a love affair” within the space of this song is only ever waiting to be “restored” (line 50). So too does the narrative arc end ambivalently, with the pair speculating “who had been damaged the most” (line 46).

Nonetheless, this narrative reluctance toward a clear resolution of instabilities is compensated by Simon’s move, in the final verse, into a lyric mode that envisions an ideal unity of “hearts and bones” that “won’t come undone” (lines 54, 53). The contemplative move by the extradiegetic narrator serves to imaginatively construct a possible world for the two wanderers of the narrative. Although the story ends on a moment of failed intersubjectivity, where it is better to wander alone than together, and thus care of the self trumps care of the other,[2] here the narrator supplements that narrative “reality” with lyrical possibility. In effect, this narrator wanders away from the story-world and its geographic borders, refusing to accept the narrative’s uncomfortable remainders. While a narrator who is at odds with his own story may appear as an aesthetic weakness, such self-division, I would argue, enriches the larger song. The lyric revision testifies to both the emotional and aesthetic difficulty of remaining “distant” from others, whether they are one’s stories, one’s characters, or one’s lovers.

Collaboration and colocation in “Graceland”

There is more written about Graceland than perhaps any other of Simon’s albums. Academics and music journalists alike have found much critical fodder surrounding the album’s collaborative production with South African musicians in the midst of the 1980 U.N. cultural boycott against apartheid. According to the U.N., Simon did in fact violate the terms of the boycott, which “request[ed] all states to take steps to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting, and other exchanges with South Africa” (Maren 22). Simon, for his part, reiterated his own complete opposition to the apartheid system, as well as his refusal to perform in South Africa (Maren 23). Such remarkable saturation of popular music into the realms of global politics and institutionalized racism, while not unheard of, was (and is) especially pronounced with this album. Moreover, this visibility brought especial clarity to the complex intertwining of ethics and aesthetics.

Several critics at the time expressed their hesitations over an album that, though deeply mired within a repressive political context, refused lyrically to engage in those politics. Robert Christgau, for example, argued in 1986 that Graceland “circle[s] around an evasive ideology, the universalist humanism that is the secret intellectual vice of centrist liberals out of their depth. It’s not so much what Simon says as what he doesn’t say” (188). That Simon’s collaboration with black South African musicians and his adaptations of umbaqanga (Soweto-based “township jive”) could be potentially appropriated by an apartheid regime determined to prove to the world the morality of its system was a justifiable fear. If Graceland’s aesthetic sharings were to become a signifier not of cultural vitality but political legitimacy, then it would threaten the act of stigmatization so central to the anti-apartheid strategies of many in the international community. Similarly, Louise Meintjes argues that Graceland is a “polysemic sign vehicle that comes to stand for social collaboration” (37), but such collaboration, in fact, serves to construct a deeper ethical ambiguity:

Graceland’s music and metacommentary are not presented as discourses about power discrepancies based specifically on race and located specifically in South Africa. It is left up to the individual listener to make sense of the musical collaboration in her or his own terms. This equivocation permits multiple and often conflicting paths of inference. It can thus serve the interests of various and even opposing sociopolitical groups. These may even include groups that Simon and the collaborating musicians would not choose to support. (39)

While, surely, the “individual listener” is involved in a process of interpretation that is inevitably personal, this does not mean that texts do not solicit certain types of readings, some of which are more relevant than others. In the case of Graceland, South Africa is always a specific intertextual location, regardless of lyrical denotation, precisely because of the inextricability of musical discourse with story, of form with content. Simon’s story-worlds on the album are grounded by black South Africa, by Soweto, and by musicians such as Chikapa “Ray” Phiri and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In other words, South Africa is constitutive of the narrative worlds Simon creates.

The road narrative of “Graceland”—township jive and American pop—is especially provocative because it is a discursive act of co-location. In this song, specific geographic markers of the Mississippi River and Memphis help trace a route through the American South as the autodiegetic (character) narrator tells of a road trip with his son, “the child of my first marriage” (line 13), and his tentative belief that they will be “received/In Graceland” (lines 15–16). It is a pilgrimage that not only imbricates the political upon the personal but also fuses racial and national signifiers. As Christgau observes, it is unsettling that “somehow the world’s foremost slave state is a haven of grace” (184). Clearly, the song negotiates some troubling antitheses: in its discursive move toward racial collaboration, it also locates a historic center of American oppression as the redemptive destination—a destination at which the characters never arrive. This lack of arrival within the narrative is particularly significant because, like “Hearts and Bones” before it, it constitutes, at best, an ambivalent resolution of narrative instabilities. By the end of the song, the pair will “maybe” be received in Graceland (line 54), but maybe not. If the outward purpose of the road trip is to get somewhere, that fusion of person into place—that immersive experience—never actually occurs.

That such fusion never transpires within the story is significant with respect to the musical discourse itself. Christgau, drawing upon David Copland’s study of South African music, In Township Tonight!, uses “syncretism” to describe the album. Syncretic music, according to Christgau “reconciles different or opposing principles” but simultaneously allows each element to “retain its integrity” (181). Syncretism, then, in contrast to fusion or integration, presupposes the autonomy of distinct musical modes; it is a discursive technique that privileges juxtaposition over synthesis and vacillation over smooth resolution. I suggest, then, it is through his discursive choices—through his conscious layering of umbaqanga and American rock—Simon demonstrates an implicit awareness not simply of the liberating power of collaboration but of the potential losses that may occur when aesthetic collaboration transforms into aesthetic assimilation. Certainly through its musical forms, “Graceland” testifies to the aesthetic value of intercultural sharing, but its syncretism also suggests that over-sharing may undermine the integrity of the other.

Thus, when the characters travel “through the cradle of the civil war,” readers (but not listeners) will note the lack of capitalization in the original liner notes. Bennighof argues that this enriches the symbolic resonance of the historical reference with “its possible application to domestic strife” as well as national strife (112). I would argue the image is even richer than that. Given that the song is structured through distinctive umbaqanga rhythms, given the commanding presence of such players as guitarist Ray Phiri, bassist Bakithi Kumalo, and drummer Vusi Khumalo, and given the apartheid context against which these players are composing, this image stands as a potent reminder of the very real and very present historical moment of racial subjugation that informs the album as a whole. This is to say, the “civil war” stands not only as a distant image of a shared national past, but as an image of another nation’s potential future. Importantly, it is through such symbolic wanderings that “Graceland,” as a whole, becomes a co-locative narrative. The propitious American topography of redemption comes into being only through the presence of its bleak South African counterpart.

Consequently, the song retains the integrity of a radically diverse set of cultural experiences. Such syncretism—in musical and narrative technique—bespeaks an ethics of collaboration that is hyper-aware of itself. The South African jive structure does not allow the conventional American road narrative structure to overwhelm the interpretive process. This is, in a word, just as much a song about South Africa as it is about America. More than that, the umbaqanga form compels subtle changes in the standard organizing principles of popular American music: if “Graceland” starts out as a fairly typical pop song in terms of its narrative lyric structure, where verses correspond to narrative exposition and choruses to lyric contemplation, the jive rhythms do not allow for such familiar segmentation. As Bennighof notes, Simon’s choruses move toward the expository, whereas the third verse is especially heavy with commentary:

The evolution of rhetorical function is one of several means by which Simon uses the structure of the song to reflect the desire for transformation that is expressed in the lyrics. Others are more specifically musical. Most striking among these is Simon’s treatment of the melody, which varies in some interesting ways from chorus to chorus, but to a remarkable degree among the three verses. (112)

Indeed, the South African jive structure of the song, in its influence over narrative discourse, compels Simon to wander away from familiar pop forms. The insistence of the umbaqanga aesthetic mode as an autonomous yet accountable form demonstrates a larger skepticism toward the assimilative power of dominant and popular modes of discourse. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in the final verse the narrator contemplates, with some ambivalence, the fact of obligation: it is wholly unclear whether he feels “obliged to defend/Every love” or not (lines 51–53). To whom are we beholden? How does such obligation come into being through our lives and through the aesthetics by which we choose to construct those lives? In its wanderings between aesthetic forms, between histories, between nations, “Graceland” makes such ethical questions powerfully present.

Wanderings and directions

The intersections between ethics and aesthetics within Simon’s road songs are multiple and complex. Although this discussion is by no means exhaustive, it does gesture at the ways Simon’s formal techniques reimagine the road—and lyric narrative itself—as a compelling space of interpretive negotiation, wonder, and wandering. Whether Simon’s roads are sites through which frontier identities are revised, hermeneutic responsibility is reconsidered, intersubjectivity is challenged, or where collaborative aesthetic action is itself reconceived as a sign of the complex accountabilities between self and other, they all testify to the potent inevitability of encounter within American life. In one lesser-known lyric, “Cars are Cars,” Simon writes,

Cars are cars
All over the world
But people are strangers
They change with the curve. (lines 19–22)

A simple observation, Simon’s recognition of the ultimate strangeness of people—their irreducibility, their mutability, their otherness—despite the potentially homogenizing spaces that surround and sometimes overwhelm them, gestures at his own aesthetic motivations. To encounter and explore such strangeness through art is to respond to what is, in Simon’s lyric narratives, an ethical necessity: to listen beyond the borders of our understanding.

[1] According to Gerald Prince, unnarration refers to “the ellipses underlined by a narrator, indicated through a retroactive filling in, or inferable from the significant lacunae in the chronology of events” (118). For Robyn Warhol, it solicits readers “to participate imaginatively in co-creating the narrative” (623).

[2] Simon returns to this theme later in his career in “Another Galaxy,” another song about border-crossing: “There is a moment, a chip in time/When leaving home is the lesser crime” (lines 7–8).