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


It takes a specific amount of hubris to put in writing a track like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—to put in writing, this is, an earthly hymn, a non-religious gospel hit for burned-out sixties’ folkies. Maybe just a tragic flaw may encourage a composer “coming off the again of 4 hit albums and two primary singles in 4 years” to appease the disaffection of down-and-out Americans who may see the backside from the place they stood in 1969, a yr infamous for its cultural disaffection and political gloom.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s standing as celebrity hitmakers at the finish of the decade possibly made it tougher for audience of Songs of America—the tv movie during which “Bridge Over Troubled Water” debuted—to take them critically.

When the duo first seems on display in the musical documentary, of varieties, Garfunkel “brings up the matter of America’s forthcoming 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 means of Charles Grodin with over part 1,000,000 in CBS cash, the movie’s “temper of pensive pomposity involves dominate.” It gained few converts, regardless of the showstopper of a track. “The reasonable CBS viewer didn’t wish to see the global crumbling,” once more, in Songs of America.

The heaviest collection was once a depressing twist on the movie’s travelogue theme, juxtaposing clips of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King on the marketing campaign path with photos of mourners observing Bobby Kennedy’s funeral educate move by means of. The musical accompaniment was once unfamiliar: a type of white gospel track, stately and hymn-like, construction to a shattering climax as the lengthy black educate sped thru America’s damaged center. One million audience answered by means of turning the dial and observing the determine skating on NBC as an alternative. Some despatched hate mail. Songs of America wouldn’t be noticed once more for over 40 years. 

While the film failed, the track, and album, turned into straight away vintage and rose to No. 1. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” additionally entered the cultural lexicon as although it had emerged from the misty pre-recording historical past of the 19th century, when songs had been written and rewritten by means of nameless people claiming divine inspiration. “The celebrated New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint appreciated to mention: ‘That track had two writers: Paul Simon and God.’”

The actual tale comes to no supernatural intervention—it does contain a type of “love and robbery” (as Bob Dylan admitted, alluding to a book on blackface minstrelsy), thru the affect of the Swan Silvertones’ recording of the 19th-century religious, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” Simon listened to the file “time and again in his Upper East Side condo… thunderstruck by means of a line improvised by means of lead singer Claude Jeter: ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water in case you accept as true with in my title.’” (When Simon met Jeter two years later, he it seems that “wrote him a cheque on the spot.”)

Inspiration flowed thru him. “I do not know the place it got here from… It simply got here, all of a unexpected,” he recalls in the clip additional up from the 2011 documentary The Harmony Game. “I bear in mind considering that is significantly higher than I typically write.” He identified instantly that he had penned what he would name “my biggest track”… “my ‘Yesterday.’” The comparability is notable for its distinction of attitudes.

Paul McCartney’s mega-ballad extols the virtues of nostalgia and pines for more effective occasions; Simon’s channels Black American gospel, having a look past non-public ache to the plight of others. It additionally takes its chord development from a Bach chorale tailored by means of 19th-century hymn writers. That’s to not say “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” doesn’t evoke the non-public. The lyrics “Sail on silver woman” talk without delay to his soon-to-be spouse Peggy Harper, “who had not too long ago fretted about discovering her first gray hairs.” The relaxation got here from traditions of devout song.

Simon gave the vocal to Garfunkel as a result of he idea “handiest Artie’s choirboy voice may do justice to the track,” Lynskey writes. Garfunkel felt intimidated by means of the track and “appreciated the sound of Paul’s falsetto.” Simon took his hesitation as an affront. “Such was once the state of their partnership in 1969.” It’s transparent in the opening mins of Simon’s solo 1970 interview with Dick Cavett at the most sensible that the iconic people workforce would quickly be parting tactics, for a time no less than. Cavett has some a laugh with Simon about the authenticity of his songwriting. “Maybe I lied… a pair of occasions,” he solutions, some good-natured Queens defiance coming up in his voice. “I used to be pretending to be somebody else.”

Cavett then (at 5:25) asks the “unimaginable query”—how does one write a track like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”? Simon pulls out his guitar and obliges, appearing how the chords first got here from Bach. He will get giant laughs and applause for his definition of feeling “caught” prior to he came upon the Swan Silvertones. “Everywhere I went led me to the place I didn’t wish to move.” It’s perhaps as common a sense as has ever been installed track.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” grew to become 50 in January of 2020, a month or so prior to so the country Simon eulogized in advance in Songs of America fell into critically bothered waters. In our stuckness, perhaps his vintage ballad, and particularly its name to achieve past ourselves, can lend a hand get us over like not anything else. See Simon and Garfunkel play it reside simply above of their first Central Park reunion live performance in 1981.

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Tom Petty Takes You Inside His Songwriting Craft

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


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