Study Guide

You Can Call Me Al Technique

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  • Music

    The album Graceland saw Paul Simon take his music in an entirely new direction by incorporating South African music into his American pop sensibilities, creating an entirely fresh sound. This music is neither entirely American nor is it South African, but a unique confluence of the two. In order to write songs that reflected South African musical styles, Simon had to change the ways he composed songs. Prior to Graceland, he always wrote songs in the conventional manner, composing a melody on the guitar or piano to fit with his lyrics. But beginning with Graceland, Simon made rhythm the most important consideration when writing a song. He wrote the songs for this album beginning with a basic "rhythmic premise," and only then would he add a guitar melody, and finally, lyrics to accompany it all.

    According to Simon, "[my abilities as a guitarist] hadn't kept up with the melodies and chord structures I could think of. What I discovered while making Graceland was a deeper understanding of rhythm....The big learning experience from the African musicians, and especially the guitarists, was how do I break down rhythm and understand its workings, what its effects are derived from, how might I reproduce them, instead of writing something and thinking, 'That's a good groove. I hope I get another one.'"

    Writing and composing the songs for Graceland was largely a collaborative effort between Paul Simon and the South African guitarist Ray Phiri, bassist Bakithi Khumalo, and Zulu a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Together, these musicians find the groove on "You Can Call Me Al" from the very start of the song, when the keyboards, drums, trumpet, and saxophone all kick in. According to the bassist Bakithi Khumalo, when composing the music for the songs, he had to make space for Simon's lyrics. In a profile of Paul Simon in the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson explains that "as a singer, Simon is an adept and imaginative phraser, an ability he developed to compensate, he says, 'for not having a big voice.'" You can hear this unique vocal delivery in the very first verse, as Simon allows the words to fill their own space rather than unwittingly forcing them out.

    The musical scholar Louis Meintjes explains that on "You Can Call Me Al," "distinct musical styles are structurally integrated rather than merely juxtaposed." This is most prominently highlighted during the song's instrumental breakdown, which features the pennywhistle and the bass. The pennywhistle solo pays homage to a South African musical genre called kwela, which was an improvisational street music prominent in the black townships during the 1950s and 1960s. The song also contains elements of the Zulu choral music called mbube. Together, mbube and kwela create a musical sound that was prominent in South Africa in the 1980s called mbaqanga, or township jive. These distinct South African musical styles combine with Paul Simon's vocals, delivered in English, to create a distinctive, worldly sound.

  • Songwriting

    According to Alec Wilkinson of the New Yorker, "among Simon's contemporaries in popular music, perhaps only Paul McCartney is his peer as a writer of melodies, just as Bob Dylan and, maybe, James Taylor are his only peers as lyricists." High praise indeed. When it comes to songwriting, Simon is patient, meticulous, and attentive. He is rarely afraid to discard large chunks of his draft lyrics, because he sees songwriting as "trial and error repeated almost endlessly." This work ethic has clearly served Simon well.

    The lyrics of "You Can Call Me Al" include a medley of vignettes and experiences from Simon's life. Some of the lyrics seem like gibberish that Simon included simply because he liked the combination of the words: "some roly-poly bat faced girl." Can't say we've ever seen such a thing. (Fortunately?) But to Simon, it doesn't matter if such a thing exists. What is interesting in Simon's songwriting in this particular song is that none of the lines rhyme with one another, yet they flow together so easily. Simon has a knack for understanding what sounds good, formal rhyme scheme be damned. Writing lyrics and music, he explains, is all about "getting the right mixture of sounds and words."

    Simon's lyrics are at times highly personal, and yet at other times they maintain some distance between the artist and the listener. "You Can Call Me Al" contains episodes of his life that actually occurred, such as the seemingly bizarre chorus, which is based on an instance at a party in which the host called Paul Simon "Al" and his then-wife Peggy Harper "Betty." The third verse of the song is probably the most personal, as he describes ever so briefly, yet poignantly, his experience in South Africa. Simon perfectly captures the experience of being a foreigner in a strange land who is trying to make sense of all the things he sees, hears, smells, and feels. As Simon explains, "I write about the things I know and observe."

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