John Sieger
Sieger of Songs

“Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”

It’s a classic by Paul Simon, but did he borrow too much of it?

By - Jul 20th, 2016 04:12 pm
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Paul Simon playing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Photo by Matthew Straubmuller (imatty35) (http://flickr.com/photos/imatty35/5766935439/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Simon playing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Photo by Matthew Straubmuller (imatty35) (http://flickr.com/photos/imatty35/5766935439/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

After writing about Led Zeppelin and their copyright trial a couple weeks back, I thought we might mine that vein a bit more. We all know how much fun mining is. Paul Simon certainly does. He’s been swinging his pickaxe in the old deserted tunnels of folk music for six decades, and consistently bringing out gold.

He’s such a singular and recognizable artist that it’s striking (mining term there) how often he is rumored to do a little more than appropriate. There is no doubt of his brilliance and facility with words. Though his lyrics leave me wondering if he’s showing off sometimes, he is a wordsmith of the first order and gets a pass when I don’t quite grasp what he’s getting at.

Melodically and harmonically, he’s a walking master class. The changes he writes are always sophisticated and his melodies are indelible. Rhythmically his music has been informed by African and Latin American traditions ever since he left Garfunkel in the choir loft. Greatly rewarded for his efforts, he’s one of the best selling artists in history. What more could you ask for?

But for some, including a few who feel their names were unjustifiably left off the writing credits, Simon’s success is not celebrated as heartily. That’s not to say any of the accusations are true. I don’t think he’s been in court to defend his honor. I am neither judge nor jury and wouldn’t want to rule on how these delicious recipes came about, but I am very interested in where the line is drawn as to what constitutes illicit borrowing.

With his brilliant engineer, Roy Halee, Simon travelled to South Africa before making his greatest comeback with the album Graceland. There they connected with local musicians and singers and many of the cuts on the record feature them and and sound very African. It’s easy to see how some would cry cultural imperialism: you see another white face on a black tradition and can’t help wondering.

Los Lobos, who play on the album’s last track, are said to be unhappy with how it went down. A lot of the tracks on the record were the result of jams, with Simon adding words and melodies later. A small slice of that Graceland pie would buy a lifetime of dessert for some lesser known artists. Others, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo (one of my favorite ever group names), probably didn’t mind because instant fame in the U.S. was the result. Re-listening to that recording today and especially the tracks “Homeless” and “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” I was once again bowled over by their power and beauty.

There is nothing about the song or video that doesn’t scream big budget. Both are beautiful and glossy, and obviously you don’t invest that amount of time and effort into something you don’t like. This song and most of the record are a love letter to African Music. His methods, as I describe them here, seem an awful lot like those employed by his contemporaries The Talking Heads. There was something in the air back then and the success rate for those two cultural icons was high. A lot of memorable music came from those sessions. Simon, nowhere near as obscure as the enigmatic David Byrne, lays it out.

O kodwa u zo-nge li-sa namhlange
(a-wa a-wa) Si-bona kwenze ka kanjani
(a-wa a-wa) Amanto mbazane ayeza

She’s a rich girl
She don’t try to hide it
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes

He’s a poor boy
Empty as a pocket
Empty as a pocket with nothing to lose

Sing Ta na na
Ta na na na
She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes
She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes

People say she’s crazy
She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes
Well that’s one way to lose these
Walking blues
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes

She was physically forgotten
Then she slipped into my pocket
With my car keys
She said you’ve taken me for granted
Because I please you
Wearing these diamonds

And I could say Oo oo oo
As if everybody knows
What I’m talking about
As if everybody would know
Exactly what I was talking about
Talking about diamonds on the soles of her shoes

She makes the sign of a teaspoon
He makes the sign of a wave
The poor boy changes clothes
And puts on after-shave
To compensate for his ordinary shoes
And she said honey take me dancing

But they ended up by sleeping
In a doorway
By the bodegas and the lights on
Upper Broadway
Wearing diamonds on the soles of their shoes

And I could say Oo oo oo
As if everybody here would know
What I was talking about
I mean everybody here would know exactly
What I was talking about
Talking about diamonds

People say I’m crazy
I got diamonds on the soles of my shoes
Well that’s one way to lose
These walking blues
Diamonds on the soles of your shoes

© Words and Music Paul Simon (Beginning by Paul Simon and Joseph Shabalala)

Well look at that credit! He’s a good man, after all. At least in this instance. American dollars in South Africa go a long way and Mr. Shabalala (one my favorite names ever) undoubtedly earned plenty of them to throw around. It wasn’t until a few years later, when apartheid ended, that he could use them to live anywhere he wanted.

The questions still linger, and no matter how courts decide, this topic will always be open to debate. It hinges on your definition of creation and the elements, ancient and new, that go into a song. Some borrowings might be more forgivable when the results are as stellar as this song, which was on a giant smash hit of an album, one that introduced a lot of people to the beauty of African music.

What Simon created was an ambitious and sublime act of imagination and I would be inclined to give him credit for risking criticism to get to such spectacular results. The proof is in the pudding, or to recast Justice Potter Stewart’s take on pornography, “I don’t know what plagiarism is, but I know it when I see it.”

2 thoughts on “Sieger of Songs: “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes””

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I liked “She makes the sign of a teaspoon/He makes the sign of a wave” – very poetic and symbolic! And everyone remembers this melody.

  2. Virginia Small says:

    I’ve loved Graceland as an old-fashioned thematic album and all of the individual songs.

    I’m not sure from this analysis what exactly the beef is. That more people should have been credited for the music? Or were some of the words possibly lifted from Shambalala?

    The album seemed to have been a boost for the Ladysmith band and possibly world music as a genre.

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