Masekela’s 1968 Landmark “Grazing In The Grass” Soothed America’s Soul

There’s so much to say about Hugh Masekela, the legendary trumpeter who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 78. He was a lifelong crusader for human rights, especially in his native South Africa, and he devoted himself tirelessly to charitable causes his whole life. He was a central figure in Paul Simon’s legendary Graceland project in 1986, and Simon called him the single greatest authority on South African music and one of the kindest, most generous souls he’s ever met. Masekela’s list of accomplishments runs long and deep.

But when I think of Hugh Masekela one song always comes to mind.

The summer of 1968 seemed an awfully long way removed from the previous year’s joyfully precocious Summer of Love. 1968’s was more like the summer of tragedy and discontent. The Vietnam War was delivering more American casualties than ever before, and the streets were filled with unrest. The assassinations of MLK and RFK seemed to put a bullet in the heart of the Peace and Love philosophy, which became reflected musically by the gradual dissolution of psychedelia’s unifying trappings.

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Whatever else the weird karma floating around that summer was responsible for, at least one amazing thing happened: “Grazing In The Grass”, a jazz instrumental by the obscure South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, became the smash hit of the season, seemingly one of the unlikeliest #1 Hits in Billboard history. But listen to it again and the track’s natural appeal still shines.

It was a little bit exotic and a little bit familiar at the same time. Right off the bat, nobody had ever heard a cowbell played like that, and off the top of my head I can’t think of another song since where it is played quite so. The triplet pattern on the piano was also pretty unusual for the pop charts. This was jazz, but played looser and rawer than the American variety. It felt like R&B, it felt hippie, it felt urban, it felt rural, it felt warm, it felt like summer. This was a landmark song that helped America chill out at a time it really needed to.

It was also a product of a time when people were, perhaps paradoxically, much more open to exotic-sounding music than they are today. I am still holding out faint hope for a time when another obscure international jazz musician records an instrumental that hits #1 on Billboard. You never know, America may still yet get as messed up as it was in 1968.

Photo credit: By scorpius73 from Washington, DC, USA (Hugh Masekela) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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