by Kevin Burton
The lyrics say crime and punishment, the delivery, whimsy and jest.
The package came from Paul Simon, and he was hot in the early 70s. So I am amazed to learn that this song qualifies for inclusion in our 2022 series on songs that peaked at number 22 on the American chart.
But maybe fans just didn’t know what to make of “Me And Julio Down by The Schoolyard.” Simon had six top ten solo hits. This wasn’t one of them.
“The song is about two boys who have broken a law, although the exact law that has been broken is not stated in the song,” explains the song’s Wikipedia page. “When ‘the mama pajama’ finds out what they have done, she goes to the police station to report the crime. The individuals are later arrested, but released when a ‘radical priest’ intervenes.”
What was the crime that the mama saw? Fans have asked that question down through the years. Given the times, I always assumed it had something to do with drugs. Not so, according to Simon.
“I have no idea what it is,” Simon told Jon Landau. “Something sexual is what I imagine, but when I say ‘something,’ I never bothered to figure out what it was. Didn’t make any difference to me.”
More recently, in October 2010, Simon described the song as “a bit of inscrutable doggerel.” Simon’s songwriting instincts were right on as usual. The song is much more fun because the crime isn’t named. Naming the crime would just slow things down.
“Simon made up a crazy little story and named the main character Julio because it sounded like a typical New York neighborhood kid (Simon grew up in Queens),” according to www.songfacts.com. “What Paul didn’t realize until much later was the impact the song had on Spanish-speaking listeners who were thrilled to hear a song coming out of America with a Latin name in the title.”
Could that be why the song stalled at 22? Maybe people who didn’t know personally, anybody named Julio, couldn’t relate to it?
But I related to a lyric like, “Well I’m on my way. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m on my way. Taking my time but I don’t know where.” That was a little something Simon articulated for those of us who couldn’t put that all together at the time.
“The ‘radical priest’ has been interpreted as a reference to Daniel Berrigan, who was featured on the cover of Time Magazine on Jan. 25, 1971, according to Wikipedia.
The lyrics however mention a different news magazine, “and when the radical priest come to get me released we was all on the cover of Newsweek.”
“The BBC refused to play the song because of the reference to Newsweek,” according to Songfacts. “The BBC had a strict policy against product mentions in the songs they played.”
So that’s how Simon lost a little air play in the UK. But I always loved and respected the song because it was so different from anything else on the radio at the time. I would have thought it would climb higher than 22.
The song mentions ‘Rosie, the queen of Corona’ referring to Corona, a neighborhood in Queens near where Simon grew up. On Sept. 22, 2018 Simon played the last show of his farewell tour in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, according to Songfacts. “How much fun is it to sing a song about Corona in Corona?” Simon asked the crowd.
The odd, squiggly percussion sound heard throughout the song, unusual for American pop, was created by a cuica, played by Brasilian musician Airto Moreira. A cuica is a friction drum instrument often heard in samba music. This is the sound that makes Me And Julio distinctive and unforgettable.
Simon did his own whistling on the track. In concert, sometimes Simon’s wife Edie Brickell does the whistling, sometimes that part is replaced by a sax solo, according to Songfacts.
Despite the lawbreaking in the lyrics, Simon played Me And Julio on season eight of Sesame Street as a group of children looked on. “Dance, dance, dance,” a girl enthused, as Simon played a song that made both little kids and big kids smile.