352. "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon

You don't see many musicians or artists of any kind doing their best work in their 40s, but I think "You Can Call Me Al" is the best Paul Simon song I've ever heard, one of the standards of modern musical canon.

The bass guitar playing is gigantic, the core of this song's virtuoso artistry. The quick-sung melodies are funny and outstanding. The brass parts still hold up as immaculate where a lot of that 1980s auxiliary instrumentation sounds extremely dated now.

We all love this song. There are few epic songs with this kind of brightness, lightness, and certitude.

The lyrics encapsulate a bit of Paul Simon's experience visiting South Africa back in a time where the Apartheid and the enervating vestiges of colonialism still made this a radical adventure. The song's rhythms evoke the complex music of those Sub-Saharan African cultures. It was a brave, relaxed attempt to reprogram 1980s Americans’ automatic responses to the idea of the "Third World." Africa, it turned out, was a place with people and music and normalcy that welcomed visitors. This was a perception shift that began decades earlier with real adventure types like the Beat writers, wild, undeterred people who found their way into countries that most traveling class Americans considered too "dark" and chaotic for their modest tastes. Mexico and Morocco were locales the Beats particularly relished in their work. I'm actually a little surprised thinking now about how much the scope of world travel has changed in my lifetime.

These days, when a little white folk singer suddenly adopts African beats and vocal styles into his music, you could denounce it as appropriation. But don't you need ambassadors on both sides? I don't think we should blame the teachers of literacy for the lack of literacy.