“Days of Miracle and Wonder”
by Randall Auxier
This is travelling music for sure. We are northbound on “Future I-26 West.” You read that right. (North Carolina has a quasi-interstate by that name; I’ll take this up in a later blog.) My travelling companion is the wife of my first marriage, united in 1986, which was a very good year (apart from the politics). We recently received a complimentary copy of the silver anniversary edition of Paul Simon’s classic recording Graceland, released that same year. As soon as it landed on the kitchen table, I felt a little tingle that I would interpret as “ya-hoo,” followed closely by the sinking realization that if this was Graceland’s 25th year in existence, what the hell happened to the last quarter century? Then I looked at the pictures of Paul Simon from 1986 and realized that I didn’t need to examine any pictures of myself from that year to confirm that both he and I are wearing the evidence. At the very least, we were squinting at the sun and eating dinner for that longish lapse. (Why am I soft in the middle, Mr. Beerbelly?)
So I planned and then anticipated my opportunity to revisit Graceland on an upcoming road trip. I suppose I could have waited for a trip down the Delta that looms in my future, but somehow late summer, as the days converge on school-year bustle, is a time for reflections over longer epochs of our durational awareness. Everyone thinks that New Year’s Eve is the moment for this kind of consciousness, but in truth, that occasion is forced, the length of the epoch is too fixed – a year, a decade, a century, a millennium – all meaninglessly arbitrary numbers and invented occasions, imposed like incidents and accidents on a fluid field of passage.
But a quarter century from a milestone moment we shared, as communities, as nations, as a globe . . . well, there’s nothing arbitrary about that. Twenty-five years ago, Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned, and Truth and Reconciliation was an impossible dream. Now it is the finest accomplishment in human history. Paul Simon’s role in the unfolding events of the late-80’s and early-90’s, events that would bring apartheid to an end, is ambiguous. The heavy lifting was done by tens of thousands of ordinary folks with iron wills and soft hearts, almost none of them from our hemisphere. But the Americans needed a symbol, some vessel from which our collective incomprehension of South African suffering could be poured out over the suburbs, sprinkled on the heads of Protestants and Catholics and Jews, incorporating them into the struggle, however lightly.
What Simon learned during his artistic journey was that we knew more about this world than we thought. Something sleeping in the sounds, seeping out of the roots of the Delta rhythms and creeping into our brains still remains. It isn’t just an analogy between American apartheid and the movement that struck it down. Rather, there is something 400 years removed that still calls and answers across the centuries, something that wells up in the body when the beat commences. Our music is African music. Some vestige of the simple freedom song flows over the jerky gyrations of colonizers and middle-passage merchants, smoothing it into a heartbeat. That is what Graceland feels like, and that is what we felt as a culture when we put it on the turntable. Paul Simon was not the songwriter, although he claimed credit perhaps beyond what was appropriate, but he was undoubtedly the conduit through which this remembrance passed from the present into the future. Or so it seems to me 26 years later, northbound on Future I-26 West.