Monday, July 19, 2010

El Condor Pasa

[Note to readers: I know I missed last week's post, but I have a good excuse. His name is Joe, he was born in July 15, and he is sleeping in my left arm.]

Simon has already drawn from native folk sources for his material, as he did with "Scarborough Fair." This time, he presages his Rhythm of the Saints work by decades with a Peruvian folk tune, replete with authentic wood flutes from the Andes.

The song's title means "The Condor Passes," the condor being a large vulture-like bird native to the Andes and Rockies. It soars, huge wings outspread, barely flapping, riding on air currents.

Gravity, as much as it gives to us, is considered the enemy of humanity. For as long as we have seen birds, we have tried to fly like them. Babies love being tossed in the air, children ride swings as high as they can, and we adults do everything from high diving and BASE jumping to parasailing, skydiving, and hang-gilding... all in the attempt to fly. Even our greatest superhero's most super superpower is to make people point skyward at his soaring form, crying: "It's a bird! It's a plane!"

Simon gives that yearning-- to be a bird-- a voice, here. He'd "rather be a sparrow." He'd rather "sail away, like a swan/ That's here and gone."

The song is about longing to fly like a bird, a "sparrow" (perhaps not as destitute a one as in "Sparrow") or a "swan." The lyrics are a series of comparisons, with the flying birds winning out over those creatures bound by gravity, like snails... or humans. Similarly, natural settings like "forests" win out over urban ones like a "street."

It interesting that he chose a "sparrow," since his song about that very bird showed how vulnerable and ignored it was. Perhaps this strengthens his point-- anyone could wish to be an eagle (or a condor) rather than stay a human. But they might prefer to stay human and earthbound if the other option was to be a mere sparrow. Not him. He wants to fly so much, he'll even be this fragile bird.

After all, "a man" might as well be a "snail." He's so "tied up to the ground" that he "gives the world its saddest sound."

Than comes the last line, which is a half a comparison: "I'd rather feel the earth beneath my feet." Rather than what? Does this continue the thought of the previous line, so that "earth" underfoot is better than the asphalt of a "street"?

Or is it a refutation of all the soaring imagery that came before? Would the speaker rather "feel the earth beneath [his] feet" than not? Would he walk forever rather than fly?

The idea of preferring the woods to the city fits somewhat with the idea of preferring flying to walking. The benefit of flying is, aside from the convenience, freedom to wander, explore, and simply-- as the Mamas and Papas encourage-- "Go where you wanna go." Wandering in the un-peopled woods is about as close to that isolation and roadless-ness as most of us will be able to get.

The answer may come from the repeated refrain: "If I could, I surely would." But he can't. Since all of these bird scenarios are impossible, wouldn't it just be better to accept one's situation, and not continue to pine away and make "the saddest sound" over what can never be? Maybe some predictability is, ultimately, better than complete, bird-like freedom.

The condor glides overhead, inspiring awe in the earthbound viewer below. It swoops... circles... and soars. But then it passes.

The speaker next lets us know that he'd rather even be a tyrant than a victim-- a "hammer," rather than a "nail." Compare this to the imagery of hammers used to symbolize fascism in Pink Floyd's movie The Wall (even though the word "fascism," which derives from the symbol of the "fasces," should be symbolized by another tool, the ax; look up "fasces" and you'll see why.).

But a true drifter wants no attachments at all, which would include power over-- and responsibility for-- others, as much as it includes being beholden to no one. He wants to be neither hammer nor nail. He doesn't want to be a tool in anyone's toolbox! We must conclude that the line is only really there to rhyme with "snail."

So why didn't Simon go back and change the opposite of "sparrow" to something other than "snail"? Perhaps he wanted to keep the alliteration with "sparrow," but dismissed other one-syllable, small, land-bound forest animals as being even worse in their imagery or rhyme-possibilities: "snake," "squirrel," "sloth." Maybe what's here is fine. We could have had: "I'd rather be a sparrow than a skunk."

Overall, the song is a lovely and haunting rumination on the limitations of the human form. Here we are, with the best brain-- and the knowledge that we would truly appreciate flight if we could have it-- and we can't even fly up into a tree like a simple sparrow. Let alone a soaring condor.

While Simon is largely credited with bringing "world music" into the mainstream of American pop culture with Graceland, this song reminds us that musicians have long been doing so. Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte were just some of the folk musicians of the 1960s who worked non-American, non-English songs into their sets. Desi Arnaz was bringing Cuban music into suburban living rooms on the Lucy show as early as the 1950s, and Latin dances were part of Xavier Cugat's swing music even before that.

The story of this song is long, but here is a short version: The melody began as a traditional Andean folk tune in Peru. It was adapted and included in a longer, theatrical piece (called a "zarzuella") along with other such melodies by one Daniel Alomia Robles.

When Simon heard the Peruvian wood-flute ensemble Los Incas playing the melody in Paris (with the arrangement of their leader, Jorge Milchberg) he asked to write words for it; Simon toured with Los Incas, who perform the backup on the Bridge version of the track. He even produced their first US album. Milchberg's later band, Urubamba, accompanies Simon for this track on Live Rhymin'. They also provide backup on his solo song, "Duncan."

And anyone who thinks Simon was only interested in "world music" during his Graceland period need only listen to this and the next track to know that he has been exploring this music for much, much longer.

The song reached #18 on the US charts. But it went to #1 all over Europe-- Spain,  Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, Austria,and Switzerland-- as well as Australia. It was covered by, of all people, crooner Perry Como.

Next song: Cecilia


  1. Congratulations on a fantastic blog. I've been reading faithfully for a while, though this is my first comment.
    My three year old daughter and I sing this song any time we're in the car. She likes to make up her own verses. My favorite: "I'd rather be a bicycle than a tree."
    Forty-five years later and Rhymin' Simon is still inspiring our youth. Awesome.

  2. Thank you for your dedicated readership! You can tell your daughter that I have recycled this song myself; for a class project in grade school on China, I sang "I'd rather be in Peking than Par-ee." (It wasn't "Beijing" yet!)