Critiquing Paul Simon and Graceland revival: could Simon not be taken for a ‘rip off” merchant?


Robin Denselow, I loved your Guardian piece, but feel it omitted something quite significant which is the way that Simon took almost all copyright for all pieces for Graceland, despite the fact that apart from a few songs, they were all learnt from people he invited to be involved. Look at the record sleeve. The late Charles Hamm in USA wrote a lot about this. Ladysmith told me that they had no choice; yes on the back of it they became world famous although they did not know that would happen at the time. Other like Los Lobos when they protested were sent along the ‘heavies’, either by Simon, or the record company (so they told me). Others had no choice but to share and take whatever the contract they were offered. So Simon took credit for material that did not belong to him and saw ‘arrangements’ as his ownership of music, a clear case of ripping off others ‘cultural capital’. Indeed given the fact that he learnt the English folk song which brought him to initial fame with Art Garfunkel, that is ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’, from UK singer Martin Carthy, could Simon not be called one of the biggest rip off merchants in the music business long term?

He clearly took advantage of the South African Zeitgeist; he was canny, shrewd and also exploitative. He claimed as (US) ‘white man’ all the credibility, openly breaking anti-apartheid culture with not really any qualms or conscience – that came post-hoc… in defencs as you suggest of attack – when as you say he was taken to task – and you were not the only one to do that worldwide. Yet Simon has created little original work of his own. Later projects on the ‘Graceland’ model, like the Brazilian one, were at best conceived as paternalist; and did not work, as part of it he failed to acknowledge that the people he worked with were brilliant and he was just a copyist, jumping on their bandwagon. He has often, if not always, attached his career like a limpet on the rock to those of others and taken the glory. What overweaning ego and ambition he displays and combines successfully with his slight figure and slighter personality.

Yikes! People like the great Hugh Masekela were and are pragmatists – they’ve been successful and worked their asses off for years and years; and kicked around the world; as well as being lauded and know the value of compromise. And are ‘real’ musicians who compose and carry on doing so. They are in a different class to Simon. To talk of them in the same breath offends at times. They are people of conscience full time all their lives. As we saw the with the recent World Cup in South Africa opening concerts, (probably paid for by) record companies promoting Back Eyed Peas and Shakira: they got their artists more time than an artist like Masekela, who got one song (I asked him why and he said ‘you are the journalist you find out…’)

So back to Simon. My view would be how dare he be so arrogant as to sound off about ‘left’ and ‘right’ and singers being screwed in the middle when he actually knows nothing about either ‘left’ or ‘right’ save in how to exploit a situation to his own advantage. The heroes were always Miriam Makeba (yes… where where the women on the disc? nowhere…) Hugh Masekela and others (not really Ladysmith Black Mambazo who were never anti-apartheid anyway, if you look closely at their history within South Africa, and happy to be exploited if it brought them fame; and also intrinsically ‘male’ ‘macho’ South Africans too with clear hierarchical structures that persist today); no, the heroes were Jerry Dammers the Special AKA and others (I vividly remember the first time they sang ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ on TV Friday night on The Tube out of Newcastle introduced by Jules Holland and Paul Yates); and Bragg to a certain extent; and those who boycotted the first London concert.

The man has an intrinsically, consummately, Paul Simon corporate mentality: ‘out for himself’ always I would say; powerful, unavoidable, and yet again in 2012 hiking his carer rejuvenation 25 years on to the exploiting yet again of South African music.

Having said that of course I loved Graceland (I still play my vinyl LP) and his earlier discs with Garfunkel. Yet I reserve the right to ‘dislike’ and ‘dis-respect’ Simon personally – hard to respect him – for what I would call endemic mean spiritedness, and a sad sheer inability to appreciate or acknowledge fully what he owes to others without whom he would be a ‘nobody’ really.




About Jan Fairley

I am an experienced and passionate ethnomusicologist working as an arts and music journalist and broadcaster, writer and editor as well as researcher, lecturer, radio presenter and producer. I have a breadth of organising experience at home and abroad. I am a fluent Spanish speaker. I love travelling and have worked abroad (notably Chile 1971-3 and again in 1994) and researched in Cuba, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Finland.
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