On Grace

Alice Willington

Happy New Academic Year! Often, in later life, we remember certain academic years not by what we studied, how well we did, or even who we were romantically involved with, but by a particular song we listened to. For many of us at school or university throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Graceland by Paul Simon was one such, due to its distinctive sound and resonant words. Graceland is a simple poem which is also incredibly rich; holding together a deep political awareness with themes of personal loss, pilgrimage and redemption. The poet describes the loss of love - being “blown apart”, a deliberately violent image - and this personal grief is located explicitly in America’s cultural and political life. The journey is placed in “the cradle of the Civil War”; the word “cradle” shows us how so much of America’s national life was born in that conflict, a conflict with racial segregation at its heart.

Graceland, the mansion of Elvis Presley, a white musician whose music was inspired by black American culture, is the site of pilgrimage, but it isn’t a place to be reached or achieved. It is instead a place where “we all will be received.” Graceland is also to be found at the place of personal loss - “sometimes when I’m falling, flying/ or tumbling in turmoil….. she means we’re bouncing into Graceland”. The place of turmoil is the place where we are welcomed. However, the distinctive bass rhythm of the song, holding these tensions, is not American but the music of the South African townships and of another country suffering racial segregation. In recording in Johannesburg with South African musicians in 1985, Paul Simon broke the cultural boycott against South Africa at a time when apartheid was still entrenched, a powerful act of hope and affirmation. Graceland is the place of political redemption and reconciliation as well as personal. Poetry and music are powerful ways of expressing hope and Graceland inspires us not to separate our personal lives from the political and cultural landscape in which we live. At the time of writing, British political life is in turmoil, but Graceland is the place of welcome in the immediate present even when redemption looks distant.

“And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland.”

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