Song of the Day #631: ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ – Paul Simon

Following the disappointment of Hearts and Bones (which followed the disappointment of One Trick Pony), Simon was on the ropes. And he responded by recording one of the greatest albums of all time, 1986’s Graceland.

Inspired by the sound of South African groups whose music he’d been introduced to, Simon packed up and flew there to record his newest batch of songs. He worked with the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo on several tracks (including today’s SOTD) and a host of local musicians. The music hewed closely to that African sound but Simon also found room for a little Tex Mex and zydeco toward the end of the album.

Any list of my favorite albums of all time would be incomplete without a mention of Graceland. It’s easy to throw it into a list like that sort of by default… it’s supposed to be there, right? But listening to the album 24 years later, it still manages to surprise and delight as much as it did in the 80s.

Simon’s blend of African rhythms and sounds with his typical folky pop songwriting and evocative lyrics is something that’s never quite been duplicated. David Byrne and, more recently, Vampire Weekend, have blended pop with world music but no matter how successful they are, Graceland remains in a class of its own.

I remember watching the hilarious ‘You Can Call Me Al’ video, starring Simon and Chevy Chase, over and over again with my parents. My mother had a theory that it worked so well because “when you put a small man in a black jacket next to a tall man in a white jacket” the effect is somehow amplified. I’ll never forget those words of wisdom. 🙂

I have too many favorites on this album to try to name just one. ‘Crazy Love Vol. II’ and ‘Under African Skies,’ two tracks that show up late in the album, have always blown me away. But so do the better-known ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ and the title track, which Simon himself once called his favorite Paul Simon song.

‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ comes right in the middle of Graceland and, with its chanting intro and gently unfolding structure, I imagine Simon intended it as the album’s centerpiece. It’s without a doubt one of the finest things he’s ever written or committed to tape.

The song was apparently written about a diamond heiress Simon once dated, which I suppose makes the titular condition the by-product of walking through a factory littered with diamond dust. I don’t know that Simon could have ever qualified as a “poor boy,” unless he dated this woman in his early teens, but I guess he took poetic license.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the meaning behind the lines “she makes the sign of a teaspoon, he makes the sign of a wave” — that one has always baffled me.

(a-wa) 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’s 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 here 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
And 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 my shoes

22 thoughts on “Song of the Day #631: ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ – Paul Simon

  1. Dana says:

    As far as I’m concerned, you could feature a theme week on just this album alone. It is that great.

    What I love in particular about the album is how it is at once foreign yet completely familiar and comfortable. That is the genius of Simon–to add the African rhythms and instruments to his Jewish Americana perspective–and come up with something fresh yet timeless.

    As for the lyric you highlight—a few thoughts. The sign of a teaspoon suggests a woman holding a spoon in that upper-crust dainty way (pinkie extended). So the sign is a symbol of wealth and also a certain rigidity to custom and institution. By contrast, the sign of a wave is structured in the song as a contrast to the “sign of a teaspoon.” So the opposite here would seem to be the restlessness of change, of revolution–that which you find in the lower class–as in a wave of change crashing up against the staid and more civilized life of the upper class. So, with this image, Simon may be suggesting the woman is royalty, and he is a commoner–but a commoner with the type of passion and emotion that you find in a lower class revolutionary (and the type of passion and emotion that the rich girl would fine dangerous and sexy).

    Anyway, that’s my take on the line.

  2. Amy says:

    I’ll have to think more about teaspoons and waves, though I’m intrigued by Dana’s suggestions. As for the “poor boy” and the woman with “diamonds on the soles of her shoes,” those images have always seemed figurative to me, so isn’t it possible that Simon (or the “poor boy” who is standing in for him) was “empty as a pocket” not because he had no material wealth but because he was devoid of the sort of spiritual fulfillment that would make him feel truly wealthy? While Ms. Diamond heiress (or the titular character who is standing in for her) is wealthy in ways far more important than money?

    Anyway, that’s how I always thought of those lines. And, yes, this is one of my favorite albums of all time, despite the fact that it is “supposed” to be. It earns its spot again and again. As I mentioned last week, and I’ve mentioned many times on this blog over the past years, I hold dearest to me the music I “discovered’ in my college years. This album is front and center of that list. I vividly remember walking to the local record shop to buy it, playing it over and over on my dorm room turntable, watching Simon on Saturday Night Live that season. All of it. As if it were yesterday. It’s amazing how powerfully music can play time machine.

  3. pegclifton says:

    This is one of my favorites of all time! Every song is wonderful. I did some checking on the web, and it seems like Dana’s interpretation is right on–way to go Dana!

  4. Jasvinder says:

    In my English class we’re supposed to do a project where we discuss a poet’s or a songwriter’s work with the class. It needed to be creative and so I seemed to gravitate towards “Graceland” and Paul Simon in general. Of all the songs in the fantastic album I happened to chose this very one you’ve focused on, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. I’ve read many opinions and came to the conclusion that it has more to do with the metaphorical meaning than the literal. This girl may be rich but she’s in fact walking around with diamond dust on her shoes. Since Paul Simon mentions
    “And I could say Oo oo oo
    And everybody here would know
    What I was talking about
    I mean everybody here would know exactly
    What I was talking about
    Talking about diamonds”
    my interpretation would be that it’s mainly about the love story he sings about. No two ways about it. The lines you’ve picked out have also baffled me while I tried figuring this song out. I was watching a video of him performing it with the african group he recorded it with and their actions (through most probably extremely unrelated to the meaning of the song) made me think of the boy as a sweeper. Her sign of the teaspoon (the whole rich aspect of it) and his sign of a wave (giant broom strokes). It might be a stretch but he could be sweeping the diamond dust as she walks right into it. I just thought it was a nice way of thinking of it. I’ve rambled a lot. Sorry.

    Either way, I’m 17 and am so glad my dad bought this CD years ago because I found it and can finally appreciate it. Paul Simon is an incredible writer. (:

    Oh and the video I mentioned is here:

    http://www.ilike.com/artist/Ladysmith+Black+Mambazo/track/Diamonds+On+The+Soles+Of+Her+Shoes

  5. Clay says:

    Thanks for the comment, and thanks for linking to that video. Watching the live performance is even more rewarding than hearing the song on the CD… what talent on that stage!

  6. thad beier says:

    “She makes the sign of the teaspoon, he makes the sign of the wave”, to me is a metaphor for the sex act…she’s receptive as a spoon, he’s rhythmic like a wave…I really don’t see how it could be anything but that.

  7. Jono says:

    I always simplified this in my head. Imagine a upper class woman waving, hand cupped, gently lifting her arm up to say hello. And the response from the poorer boy, raising his hand with fingers spread, lowering a finger at a time, like a wave, to greet her back. I’m not sure if I’ve transposed the image in my head clearly but that is how the meaning remains for me!

  8. Gabrielle Quinn says:

    Gabrielle says: I agree that the sign of the teaspoon means
    wealth-it’s associated with the upper crust with their rituals like
    high tea , the British influence. But the sign of the wave could
    symbolize the poor class with little cares or even surfing which
    is big in S. Africa. I could see local poor surfer dud ending up
    with a rich girl .

  9. Dennis McDonnell says:

    I had thought that this song is about a failing relationship between a girl “rich in spirit” She has it together, confident so that even just walking down the street it is so “rich” that is is like she walks on diamonds. He on the otherhand is a lost soul…”empty as a pocket with nothing to lose”. She makes the sign of the spoon…meaning love signs as spooning or nestling together lovingly in a bed. He makes the sign of a wave going off into the distance as it dies out. She says “take me dancing” to be light, to have carefree fun..but he drags her down and they fizzle out sleeping in a doorway of a bodega, not a pleasant image. She feels that he takes her for granted and this is reinforced by the note that he slips her into his pocket like car keys…thoughtlessly. But he does admire her spirit and we all recognize that because he says..Oooo and everyone knows what he is talking about…Diamonds on the soles of her shoes”.

  10. Julie Kane says:

    I’ve always thought of the teaspoon in relation to cooking heroin but have been puzzles by the wave. This fits – to me- with the image of sleeping in the doorway of a bodega.

    • This is how it was explained to me when it first came out…the diamonds on the souls of her shoes symbolized her being on a heroin trip, and she wants him to do it with her. But instead of having a euphoric rise, they end up huddled, literally in a doorway. At the end of the song, he now has diamonds on the souls of his shoes now, too…at the mercy of heroin. Now they’re both ‘physically forgotten’. 😦 The high from the heroin is in one’s mind, only…no dancing on Broadway.

  11. Alexa says:

    I don’t believe it can mean about wealth, because when he sings about how Paul says, “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…”
    I’m sorry but that doesn’t sound like he magically gets “wealth” also at least in terms of money. Sounds more spiritual by experience, in love, or sexual. I’m going more with experience and spiritual.

    • Alexa says:

      and it seems to match more with the African culture by being of that nature rather than about money. Their heritage is spiritual in nature and isn’t that what the album is all about? Integrating the African culture ?

    • Mark Elliott says:

      In part, it is about the difference in their wealth. She makes a request that a more middle-class or wealthy suitor could fulfill: “take me dancing”. And, as a less well-heeled person, he may very well have taken her dancing on their date, but it was maybe more “around the corner” from the best places, so they wound up sleeping (because, e.g., his apartment was not nearby…it was far away in the poorer part of town) in a doorway, not far (see the metaphor?) from where they would have gone if he was of her circle.

  12. Alexa says:

    and a “Bodega” is basically a convenience store, Does that sound like “wearing diamond on the soles of their shoes” in wealth terms to you? lol.

  13. Alexa says:

    …and that basically wherever they go, they leave an imprint or positive impression,:) And now he does too:) She taught him to live and appreciate and not take things or people for granted as it says in the song.”)

  14. Alexa says:

    “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 with car keys meaning to get out and travel and see and experience things:)

  15. Mark Elliott says:

    I’m surprised that the obvious has been missed. There IS a lot of playful double-meaning, particularly the two ways of waving (with cupped hand like the queen and with waving arm like someone watching the queen go by in a parade)–so, many of these interpretations are far from wrong. Note, too, that he may be making the SINE of a wave.
    But the primary sense of the line, as I’ve understood it since the album’s release, when I was 17, is simply how much each gender lets on to their interest in the other (particularly sexual interest). She expresses some small interest whereas he comes on strong: where she offers only a teaspoon to be filled, he can more than fill it up with an entire ocean wave of water. It’s about the smallest sign of her interest inflaming his desire.

    • graeme says:

      Did not know about the diamond mine hieress, so I imagened that diamonds were frost on the soles of the poor street people sleeping in a doorway, but still had love.

  16. Pamela ash says:

    The spoon the wave….. spoon as in silver spoon wealhty … wave as who he is loves whi he is a wave goodbye

  17. Adam says:

    In the early 1980’s Paul Simon would absolutely, most definitely have been wearing Converse All Stars when he visited Africa. On the bottom of this particular shoe is a very distinctive diamond pattern. This diamond pattern would have stood out in the African dust in comparison to all of the foot prints of the people and the villages he visited. I’m betting good money that someone pointed out the diamond pattern that was left in the dirt by this seemingly rich American song-writer – and through a translator they all had a good laugh about how he had Diamonds On The Soles of His Shoes. An artist, poet, visionary finds inspiration from everything he touches, hears, sees… that’s my theory and I’m stickin’ to it!

    • Mark Elliott says:

      I really like this lyrical connection you’ve made. However, any full interpretation of this song must make the connection with South Africa’s identity as a major region in the diamond trade. For most of its history, South Africa’s mineral resources were exploited colonially, as if the very ground underneath the feet of African people belonged, somehow, to a tiny group of already-wealthy Europeans. In the cultural moment of Simon’s album, 1986, with Apartheid, et al. under fire, talking about “diamonds on the soles of her [Africa’s] shoes” was an image that could not be divorced from tangent political implications.

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