"Under African Skies" as written by and Paul Simon....
Joseph's face was black as night
The pale yellow moon shone in his eyes
His path was marked
By the stars in the Southern Hemisphere
And he walked his days
Under African skies

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

In early memory
Mission music
Was ringing 'round my nursery door
I said take this child, Lord
From Tucson Arizona
Give her the wings to fly through harmony
And she won't bother you no more

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

Joseph's face was as black as the night
And the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes
His path was marked
By the stars in the Southern Hemisphere
And he walked the length of his days
Under African skies


Lyrics submitted by dank

"Under African Skies" as written by Paul Simon

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

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Under African Skies song meanings
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31 Comments

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  • +2
    General CommentI'm guessing that Paul Simon may have had all three "Josephs" in mind when he wrote the song. And I believe his thesis in the song is that Jewish and African American cultures are joined at the roots.

    As a Jewish kid growing up in New York City next to Blacks and Latins and Italians, at a time when there was still come solidarity between the Jewish and Black communities (this was during the civil rights movement), Simon belonged to a long tradition of Jewish musicians who felt a kinship with Black musicians, from Al Jolson and George Gershwin to Bob Dylan and Carole King.

    It's likely that both Biblical "Josephs" were dark-skinned, if not "black as night," and they both "walked their days under African skies" as exiles in Egypt. Not the first time African and Semitic cultures touched, and certainly not the last.

    The clue to this interpretation is the second verse, which I read as another link between two strains of religious "roots music." The woman singing is Linda Ronstadt, a Mexican-American woman who grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and tells the same story about her girlhood that Paul Simon tells in the song "Late in the Evening," that listening to music, from Catholic hymns and Mariachi Canciones, to Black Gospel, C&W, R&B and Brill-building Pop, "pulled her through," giving her the courage to leave her hometown. (She finally came back, but that's a different story.)

    So Graceland is "the story of how we begin to remember," the common roots of our different musical traditions, which have their origins in "the powerful pulsing of love in the vein," a love both physical (as in "sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll"), and spiritual, as in the ecstatic chants of the earliest religions.

    For the meaning of "the dream of falling," see my notes on "An American Tune."
    tappankingon November 16, 2007   Link
  • +2
    My InterpretationWhile we are all having some fun with this Biblical referencing, lets go some better. When Herod ordered the killing of Israel's male infant population after the visit of the Maggi, where was it that Joseph finnaly flrd TO with Mary and Jesus in tow? Egypt, which is where, boys and girls? Right, AFRICA!
    Next on our Biblical geographic wanderings, lets not fosget the orriginal Joseph, the one of dreaming and technicolor dream coats. Where was it that he ended up after being sold into slavery by his brothers? Egypt, once again under African skies. And he spent ALL his days there. Carry on class, and good work all biblical scholars out there!
    Windlickeron April 20, 2009   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis song gives me the sensation of walking amongst the wildlife of Africa, without all the animal attacks.
    TonyRo2on February 04, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI always thought the line was "this is the story of how we FORGET to remember" not begin. But I could be wrong. If I am, then that makes me sad because I loved that line... :(
    thelesserthreaton July 09, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI am almost sure that the Joseph Paul Simon is referring to is the late Joseph Shabalala, of Lady Smith Black Mambazo, whom Paul Simon helped bring to America. I think he was touched by Joseph's soulful music. I think this song may refer to Joseph's idea of gifts that we choose when we are still in the womb and God breathes into us, but that's my own interpretation. I may be wrong.
    Simonfanon August 03, 2006   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationThis is a song about the roots of language.

    It is a song about music, and rhythm. And it demonstrates not only in its lyrics but in its changing tempo and the rhythm of its lines how language developed. The "story of how we begin to remember" IS the story of language. We remember – as a species – because we are able to pass our knowledge on from generation to generation. This was originally done through spoken language; writing came much later. Africa was the cradle of humanity, and as humans began to march out of the grasslands and deserts, they took the ability to communicate with them – first in music, then in song, and finally in speech.

    Where did words first come from? Were they random? Or was there some, deep-rooted reason why a tree is called a "tree", a river is called a "river" and why Joseph was called "Joseph"?

    So much of it has to do with music, rhythm and how they developed. Did the very first "name" come from somebody "falling and calling their name out"?

    Notice how the rhythm of the song changes between the first and the final verse. The first verse is imperfect: "Joseph's face was black as night; the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes". There are slight gaps that need to be accounted for. Certain words need to be stretched out in order to accommodate the tune.

    But by the final verse – essentially, a repetition of the first – this has been remedied. Now Simon sings, "Joseph's face was as black as THE night, AND the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes". We are no longer told that Joseph "walked his days under African skies"; instead, he "walked THE LENGTH of his days under African skies". The rhythm of each line has been perfected: there are no gaps or strained syllables. This is how language developed: words were needed to perfect the rhythm of speech, and so they were born.

    The purpose and function of language is one of the most fundamental aspects of modern philosophical discourse. The brilliance in this song is that it is not only TELLS us about the roots of language; it ILLUSTRATES it within the very fabric of the song itself.
    Braxiatelon May 14, 2017   Link
  • 0
    General Commenta thoughtful song
    blusapphireon January 26, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthe chorus is tres magnifique
    emma.leeon March 12, 2003   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthe harmonies in this are beautiful . . .
    jett007on June 11, 2003   Link
  • 0
    General Commenthis entire 'Graceland' album holds a special place in my heart as I was actually born in Africa (and hence, under African skies!) ... the melodies and background vocals in this song are musically some of the finest ever produced; and though I'm Canadian I can't help but feel a stirring in my blood whenever i hear the drums and beats of my "home"
    Judo_yehhon January 09, 2005   Link

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