Paul Simon: Emory loves you more than you will know

By Leslie King | Emory Report | Feb. 7, 2013

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Ellmann Lecturer Paul Simon. Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews.

UPDATE (Feb. 8): Paul Simon's events at Emory have been postponed. Emory anticipates being able to reschedule the lectures at a later time, to be announced.

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Paul Simon will be here on campus in less a week. The singer-songwriter's visit, as the artist for the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature Feb. 10-12, has created a buzz that's been building since the May 2012 announcement.

Ellman Lecturer Paul Simon

"I think it's a testament to how important songs are as a kind of literature. For 50 years we've been living our lives with his songs in the background and almost all of those songs are still fresh and pertinent and beautiful today," says Ellmann Lectures Director Joseph Skibell, professor of English and creative writing.  

"Being a musician, his celebrity is more wide-reaching than even the best known authors," says Len Cassamas of the English Department. "Musicians are our heroes these days, mythological figures to a lot of people. That's how our culture works."  

Cassamas and Jacque Aly, also of the English Department, facilitate a weekly Paul Simon Discussion Group they co-founded early last fall with the blessing of the English Department and its chair Walter Kalaidjian and Skibell, who led the committee that selected Simon as the Ellmann lecturer.

"We immediately noticed the excitement and number of conversations going on around us," when the news of Simon's appointment got out, says Aly. "People were talking about so many aspects of this, and possibilities for discussion seemed unlimited."  

"For me, [the discussion group effort] just came out of pure love," explains Cassamas. "His art reaches me in a very profound way."  

Open to the Emory and Atlanta community, the group includes faculty, students and staff from a variety of departments; a member of a synagogue where the chorus has been known to perform Simon's music; a lawyer from the community; and the mother of an Emory undergrad.

In the "open and engaging" discussions, says Aly, the group talks about Simon's music, the stages of his career, stylistic changes in his music, and the protest and social justice lyrics that continued to appear in his work.

"I came to realize, as our meetings progressed, that what I most valued was the creative process; the opportunity to get to know more about Paul Simon through our discussions, the sense of community that developed among our group members, and the respect for others and integrity apparent in Paul Simon's work that was reflected in our group," she says.  

A Facebook page was set up for communicating with members of the group, Cassamas says, but its reach was unexpected. "There have been a surprising number of people from around the world who have found it."

And for months leading up to Simon's visit, faculty, staff and students have been sharing their perspectives on Simon and his work in a series of video interviews. And the campus conversations continue to be added to the Ellmann Lectures website, a YouTube playlist and iTunesU, sponsored by Creativity: Art and Innovation at Emory.  

Monday, Feb. 18, is expected to be the last meeting of the Paul Simon Discussion Group, "to tie things up, talk about the lectures [and] the whole thing," says Aly.

50 ways to give a lecture  

"These will be the first lectures Paul Simon has ever given," notes Skibell. "I gather he has been pleasantly surprised by how much he has been able to put into the lectures. He has always been one of the most literate of songwriters and I think working in paragraph, rather than stanzas, is allowing him to express himself in new and surprising ways."

Skibell will introduce Simon at the first lecture. Members of the Ellmann Selection Committee – Columbia University professor Jeremy Dauber, composer and NYU professor Andy Teirstein and novelist Heidi Durrow – will each introduce him at the three other events, he says. 

The schedule of events include:

  • Two lectures at 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10 and 8:15 p.m. Monday, Feb. 11, both in Glenn Memorial Auditorium.
  • "Music Matters: An Ethical Conversation with Paul Simon," at 10 a.m. Monday, Feb. 11, the Center for Ethics.  
  • A conversation with former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins at 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at Emory's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.  
  • A musical performance with guitarist Mark Stewart at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12, also at the Schwartz Center.  

Tickets are sold out for most events.  

Related events include a screening of the documentary "Under African Skies" on Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in White Hall 205. The film is free as part of the Emory Cinematheque series.  

Simon will also be visiting with students.

"Paul has been very generous with his time. He is meeting with a small group of music and creative writing students and alums to discuss songwriting," says Skibell.

Will it be hard to top Simon for the next set of Ellmann Lectures?  

"It's hard to overestimate how influential and global his reach as an artist is. Songs, films, comedy, theater, his artistic reach and grasp are tremendous," Skibell says. "Included in the roster of Ellmann Lectures are two Nobel Prize winners – Seamus Heaney and Mario Vargas Llosa – and beloved and world-renowned writers like Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood. Paul Simon fits right in, as [will] the next Ellmann Lecturers. We're fortunate to have him on our campus for three days."