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The song is about two boys ("Me and Julio") who have broken a law, although the exact law that has been broken is not stated in the song. 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.
The meaning and references in the song have long provoked debate. In a July 20, 1972 interview for Rolling Stone, Jon Landau asked Simon: "What is it that the mama saw? The whole world wants to know." Simon replied "I have no idea what it is... 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", while the "radical priest" has been interpreted as a reference to Daniel Berrigan, who was featured on the cover of Time on January 25, 1971, near when the song was written.
The percussion sound in the song, unusual for American pop, was created with a cuica, a Brazilian friction drum instrument often used in samba music.
In 1988, Simon released a video for the song to promote his greatest hits compilation Negotiations and Love Songs. The video was filmed at Mathews-Palmer Park in Hell's Kitchen, which was standing in for Halsey Junior High School in Forest Hills, Queens, the neighborhood in which Simon grew up and met Art Garfunkel in high school. Many of the children featured in the video were from that same school.
Simon himself performed the song on Sesame Street, along with a girl who backed him up singing "Dance dance dance all right/dance dance dance all right/Everybody dance," etc.
Canadian musician Sam Roberts performed a shortened version of the song on the Kids' CBC program Mamma Yamma, altering some of the lyrics to fit the scene he was in.
The song plays in the second episode of Saturday Night Live, during a Weekend Update segment where Simon plays basketball. It was also featured in an SNL skit paying homage to Wes Anderson as a trailer of a movie in his distinct style.