The Songbook: You Can Call Me Al

Posted: April 29, 2013 in The Songbook

I’m going to try something new on this blog.  You may have noticed that YouTube Friday has been all I’ve posting for a while, and that has been pretty spotty recently too.  Well, I’m going to retire YTF for now, and I’m going to start this series called “The Songbook”.  I’m going to try to do one of these each week, hopefully on Monday.  The idea is that I’m going to dig out a song from my songbook (currently at 260 songs and growing all the time), talk about the lyrics, and try to find some practical applications for music therapy.  The first selection is Paul Simon’s 1986 song “You Can Call Me Al.”

A man walks down the street, he says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle, the rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo opportunity, I need a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard…

A man walks down the street, he says why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention, and whoa, my nights are so long
Where’s my wife and family?  What if I die here?
Who’ll be my role model now that my role model is gone, gone…

The song starts out with a kind of joke.  “A man walks down the street…” is based on “A man walks into a bar…”  But despite the silliness of the video and the relative absurdity of the chorus, it’s not really funny.  The guy is complaining in both of the first two verses about how tough his life is, and is really kind of self-absorbed with himself.  In the first verse, you get a sense of ambition, wanting to do something to improve his situation, while the second verse demonstrates a little more depression as things aren’t turning out how he wants them to.  But then we get to the third verse:

A man walks down the street, it’s a street in a strange word
Maybe it’s the third world, maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language, he holds no currency
He is a foreign man, he is surrounded by the sound, sound
Of cattle in the marketplace, scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around, sees angels in the architecture
Spinning to infinity, he says Amen and Hallelujah

In the third verse, the man looks outside of himself and is able to see how people who are much worse off than he can survive.  Maybe it’s faith, maybe it’s community, maybe it’s something else.  But the man comes to a realization that life isn’t so bad.

(I should mention at this point that all of these interpretations are my own, and may be completely off from what Paul Simon intended.  However, that’s the beauty of music – it can mean something different to everyone.)

You Can Call Me Al is a great song for my songbook because it’s very simple musically – just three chords throughout (I-V-V-IV, IV-V-V-I).  This makes it easy to arrange for Orff instruments.  You can also add some African drumming as this came from the Graceland album, where Simon was very influenced by African music.  Lyrically, there are some good points of discussion as people look at the good things they have, even when times seem rough.  And, if nothing else, you can always do the dance.

Thanks for reading!

  1. Peggy Hickle says:


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