Paul Simon Tells the Story of How He Wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970)

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Yes! There are again my old friends. They are to many’s old friends, for sure. And for us, Al and me, it was a lifelong companion.

This time, it is about a specific song which is sure a Masterpiece: The Bridge Over Troubled Water. Their songs all are Masterpieces, as we listen to its melodies and the lyrics, which are the ones that remain as such beautiful poems.

But now, let’s have a look at this very song. Honestly, there was a time that I couldn’t hear this song anymore! The reason, of course, was not because it might be a bad song. It is a great song. It just might because I’ve heard it too many times, I might say. And yet, after so many years, I have listened to it again, and I got know the making of. It takes my soul inside floating, hovering with the poem, the words of friendship and sorrow: what a wonderful feeling.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water”

When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I’m on your side
Oh when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part
Oh when darkness comes
And pain is all around

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on, silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind

So, let’s have a look at this making-of: Paul got some idea from J.S.Bach, isn’t it great?! And he took some more from a Gospel band, though, the song is not a gospel song at all. And how the Americans needed consolations those days.

It takes a certain amount of hubris to write a song like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—to write, that is, a secular hymn, a non-religious gospel hit for burned-out sixties’ folkies. Maybe only a tragic flaw could inspire a composer “coming off the back of four hit albums and two number one singles in four years” to soothe the disaffection of down-and-out Americans who could see the bottom from where they stood in 1969, a year notorious for its cultural disaffection and political gloom.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s status as superstar hitmakers at the end of the decade perhaps made it harder for viewers of Songs of America—the television film in which “Bridge Over Troubled Water” debuted—to take them seriously.

When the duo first appears on screen in the musical documentary, of sorts, Garfunkel “brings up the subject of America’s imminent bicentennial,” writes Dorian Lynskey for the BBC, and “a camera-conscious Simon gazes into the distance and asks solemnly: ‘Think it’s gonna make it?

Directed by Charles Grodin with over half a million in CBS money, the film’s “mood of pensive pomposity comes to dominate.” It won few converts, despite the showstopper of a song. “The average CBS viewer didn’t want to see the world crumbling,” again, in Songs of America.

The heaviest sequence was a dark twist on the film’s travelogue theme, juxtaposing clips of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King on the campaign trail with footage of mourners watching Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train go by. The musical accompaniment was unfamiliar: a kind of white gospel song, stately and hymn-like, building to a shattering climax as the long black train sped through America’s broken heart. One million viewers responded by turning the dial and watching the figure skating on NBC instead. Some sent hate mail. Songs of America wouldn’t be seen again for over 40 years. 

While the movie failed, the song, and album, became instantly classic and rose to No. 1. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” also entered the cultural lexicon as though it had emerged from the misty pre-recording history of the 19th century, when songs were written and rewritten by anonymous folk claiming divine inspiration. “The celebrated New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint liked to say: ‘That song had two writers: Paul Simon and God.

The real story involves no supernatural intervention—it does involve a kind of “love and theft” (as Bob Dylan admitted, alluding to a book on blackface minstrelsy), through the influence of the Swan Silvertones’ recording of the 19th-century spiritual, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” Simon listened to the record “over and over again in his Upper East Side apartment… thunderstruck by a line improvised by lead singer Claude Jeter: ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.’” (When Simon met Jeter two years later, he apparently “wrote him a cheque on the spot.”)

Inspiration flowed through him. “I have no idea where it came from… It just came, all of a sudden,” he remembers in the clip further up from the 2011 documentary The Harmony Game. “I remember thinking this is considerably better than I usually write.” He recognized right away that he had penned what he would call “my greatest song”… “my ‘Yesterday.’” The comparison is notable for its contrast of attitudes.

Paul McCartney’s mega-ballad extols the virtues of nostalgia and pines for simpler times; Simon’s channels Black American gospel, looking beyond personal pain to the plight of others. It also takes its chord progression from a Bach chorale adapted by 19th-century hymn writers. That’s not to say “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” doesn’t evoke the personal. The lyrics “Sail on silver girl” speak directly to his soon-to-be wife Peggy Harper, “who had recently fretted about finding her first grey hairs.” The rest came from traditions of religious music.

Simon gave the vocal to Garfunkel because he thought “only Artie’s choirboy voice could do justice to the song,” Lynskey writes. Garfunkel felt intimidated by the song and “liked the sound of Paul’s falsetto.” Simon took his hesitation as an affront. “Such was the state of their partnership in 1969.” It’s clear in the opening minutes of Simon’s solo 1970 interview with Dick Cavett at the top that the iconic folk team would soon be parting ways, for a time at least. Cavett has some fun with Simon about the authenticity of his songwriting. “Maybe I lied… a couple of times,” he answers, some good-natured Queens defiance arising in his voice. “I was pretending to be someone else.”

Cavett then (at 5:25) asks the “impossible question”—how does one write a song like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”? Simon pulls out his guitar and obliges, showing how the chords first came from Bach. He gets big laughs and applause for his definition of feeling “stuck” before he discovered the Swan Silvertones. “Everywhere I went led me to where I didn’t want to go.” It’s maybe as universal a feeling as has ever been put in song.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” turned 50 in January of 2020, a month or so before so the nation Simon eulogized prematurely in Songs of America fell into seriously troubled waters. In our stuckness, maybe his classic ballad, and especially its call to reach beyond ourselves, can help get us over like nothing else. See Simon and Garfunkel play it live just above in their first Central Park reunion concert in 1981.

And now, I’ll reveal the artist’s secret: we learn from our past melodies to continue to beautify life. Enjoy 😉🤗💖

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

https://www.openculture.com/2021/02/paul-simon-tells-the-story-of-how-he-wrote-bridge-over-troubled-water-1970.html

13 thoughts on “Paul Simon Tells the Story of How He Wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970)

  1. I enjoyed reading the backstory to this amazing song which was so obviously “channelled” by “God” (however defined). In fact there’s many songs I wish I knew more about. I can resonate when a poem literally writes itself before my very eyes. Thanks for sharing Aladin. Hope you’re having a good weekend Love and light, Deborah.

    Like

  2. Elaine Mansfield

    Gorgeous, Aladin. Thank you. My life was wonderful in 1969–just married, so in love, no children, learning meditation and spending time in California experimenting with life. Of course I know this song well. This description of it grabbed me: “a secular hymn, a non-religious gospel hit for burned-out sixties’ folkies. “

    Liked by 1 person

    • You say that, my dear Elaine. Those days were the days of hope and imagination. And yes, the song has something in it, maybe one of the softest ways to show one’s friendship and gratitude.

      Like

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