While a trip to Elvis Presley's (in)famous Graceland estate is the set-up for this song, it's more about a state of grace than an actual, geographical place. Like Graceland itself, it is a place in which all are welcomed. (I even know the couple who had the mansion's first Jewish wedding; the skullcaps given to guests where made of-- what else-- blue suede.)
The trip that sets off the stream-of-consciousness lyrics seems to proceed northward from the "Mississippi Delta," perhaps down Nawlins way (that's "New Orleans," with the local accent), upstream along the river itself, through the former Confederate States, to "Memphis, Tennessee." So the word "down" in "down the highway" is to be taken as "along," not "southward"; perhaps it should be "up the highway," but in songs it's always "down the highway."
National is a brand of guitar. The maker specializes in the "dobro" a guitar with a steel plate mostly covering the soundhole (You can see one on the cover of the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms). This guitar can be played vertically or horizontally, usually with a slide and thimble-like picks (called "plectrums") and is known for its tremolo, or warbling, twangy sound. Simon is comparing the sunshine reflecting off the Delta wetlands to the shiny steel plate on this guitar, favored in country music.
"Poorboys" could be taken as "poor boys," simply "needy people," the kind that throng to a shrine like "pilgrims." But a "poorboy" is also local slang for a kind of large sandwich elsewhere known as a "hero" or "submarine" sandwich (or a "hoagie" or "grinder"). By adding some local slang, Simon is trying to evoke a sense of place. As it happens, the "Civil War" is in this area known as "The War Between the States"... but "Civil War" rhymes better with "National guitar."
Another way Simon proves his Southern bona-fides on the track is including The Everly Brothers themselves on high background harmonies (called "descants," technically). Don Everly was born in Kentucky... then Phil in Chicago, but still.
Who are the pilgrims in thos speaker's car? Himself and his son, who-- if the speaker is Simon-- is Harper, the "child of [Simon's] first marriage," to Peggy Harper. I have not done the math, but "nine years old" seems reasonable.
"But I’ve reason to believe/ We both will be received/ In Graceland." There could not have been a doubt about his son, an innocent child, being thus received. The doubt, which is here brushed away, must have been about himself, now a double divorcee.
This thought leads to its source, the memory of his love's leaving: "She comes back to tell me she’s gone." She seems to come to collect her things and let him know that her leaving is, in fact, permanent. He fumes at the insult to his intelligence: "As if I didn’t know my own bed." He knows her so well, he knows what "the way she brushed her hair from her forehead" means.
Then she makes an interesting observation-- a divorce, the loss of a love, is a public matter. As if being able to peer through "a window in your heart," everyone will know that you are devastated, "blown apart." Furthermore, those people will also feel the impact and shock wave: "Everybody feels the wind blow.”
Here, the website, liner notes, and book dispute the line. These first two sources have "Everybody sees the wind blow," which would imply people appreciate the impact but are not affected by it, which the Lyrics book says they are. Here's how this dispute breaks down, also taking the repeat of the chorus into account. The website has "Everybody sees the wind blow" both times; the liner notes have "sees" and then "feels"; the book has "feels" both times!
So we listen to the song. Simon sings "sees" the first time and "feels" the second time. The liner notes win. And this makes sense. The first time thinking the incident through, a person might only focus on himself: "Everyone sees my devastation, and I am exposed." The second time, he might see what impact his sadness and anger have had on those around him: "Everyone feels my devastation; I should be compassionate toward them, too."
And, on the second time through, the speaker realizes that he has more in his car than himself and his son. He has the skeletons from his closets, "ghosts and empty sockets."
The throw-away line that repeats changes "empty [eye] sockets" to "empties," usually a reference to empty cans or bottles of beer, as in "We should return these empties for a refund at the store." The sight of all the empties of beers consumed during a period mourning over a lost love, strewn around the floor the following morning, is a sobering thought. (Don Henley has a song with the lines: "If you still want to hold her, you must not be drinking enough.")
What else might keep someone out of grace, aside from losing love, and so now having no love? What about too much love? We'll have to find someone who has that issue and ask them. How about a girl who is, um, "bounced" on so often even she calls herself "The Human Trampoline," as if she were a circus sideshow attraction?
The speaker, who does not have that sort of chaos in his life, nevertheless knows "turmoil" of the kind a trampoline causes: "falling, flying... tumbling" in uncertainty. Yes, yes-- even someone that tumultuous can, um, "bounce" into grace.
And now the speaker is ready to admit that he was not the only one impacted by the explosions in his life. To be fair, when his former lover told him this to begin with, she may have been speaking about herself, or telling him what to expect, from her own experience.
Simon, in interviews, has said that, when he was a teen, he wanted to be Elvis (Simon has admitted to the song being influenced by Presley's "Mystery Train"). So the idea of making a pilgrimage to Graceland, the source of his artistic inspiration, at a time of reassessment, should not surprise him so much: "For reasons I cannot explain/ There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland." Isn't this album, recorded on a trip to Africa-- the ultimate source of even Elvis' music-- just a further exploration on that same journey?
So what does grace mean? The word "unconditional" often precedes the word "love," but we have just seen that romantic love is not necessarily unconditional. There are everything from divorces to one-night stands. And what if "I may be obliged to defend/ Every love, every ending," worries the speaker, so used to-- so conditioned to-- conditional love. "What if I can't justify or excuse my actions well enough-- won't I be refused?"
And then the key realization dawns and the beginning of grace is achieved. "Or maybe," he wonders, "maybe there’s no obligations now." Maybe love is conditional when it is human love, and only God's grace is pure, obligation-free, and unconditional.
If that's true, it's true for everyone: "Maybe I’ve a reason to believe/ We all will be received/ In Graceland." All. Everyone. Even him.
The song won the Grammy for Record of the Year, which goes to the person or people who performed and recorded the song (as opposed to Song of the Year, which goes to the songwriter. That year, 1988, that went to "Somewhere Out There," from An American Tail.). (Album of the Year is for the entire album. We'll see if that's phased out as downloads take over...)
The song hit charts internationally, going to 81 in the US, 98 in the UK, and 70 in Canada, and all the way to 27 in Ireland. It also cracked the top 100 in Australia and The Netherlands, and the Top 40 in New Zealand and Belgium.
It has been covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to, inevitably, Elvis impersonators. Also a band with the clever, if sad, name of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.
Next Song: I Know What I Know