About Those Two Paul Simon Songs

I’M IN A WEEKLY pandemic Zoom group with five college classmates, and the other night talk turned to the music that was on the radio when we got to College Hill in Providence, R.I. in the autumn of 1966. Doug John, whom I met during freshman week that September and discovered also knew every song on Simon & Garfunkel’s first album Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., said he could remember the first time he heard “Sound Of Silence” in the spring of his senior year in high school in Honolulu. But it wasn’t clear if he meant the Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. version or the electrified rearrangement that became a hit, almost accidentally. So I posted this follow-up:

In Robert Hilburn’s recent biography of Simon, he points out that Paul attracted the attention of Columbia producer Tom Wilson by playing him “He Was My Brother” and “Sound of Silence.” Both ended up on Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. released in Oct. 1964 (when we were juniors in HS). The LP was a disappointment, sold only a few thousand copies apparently, and no one much noticed “Sound of Silence.” Not sure how I knew about it, but I bought the album and remember taking it to school and sharing it with another guitar player, David Laney, who later became head of Amtrak under George W. Bush. But that’s another story.

THE ONLY AIRPLAY the original, un-amplified “Sound of Silence” got was in Boston on one station and later in Florida during spring break 1965, but that was enough encouragement for Tom Wilson, who heard the world changing in the Byrds’ rendition of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and thought maybe “Sound of Silence” could use some of that. Wilson, a Harvard-educated African-American from Waco who was into jazz, had produced Dylan’s rock breakthrough “Like a Rolling Stone” and was leaving Columbia. But as a last act, he hired session players to overdub the original 1964 acoustic tracks of “Sound of Silence” from Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. S&G were not even there. Paul had moved to England. Columbia released the reworked version as a single in January of 1966 and the rest is history. As it rose on the charts, Columbia rushed Paul and Artie back into the studio to record a new folk-rock album with “Sound of Silence” as the banner, the album title making the phrase plural, SOUNDS of Silence.

I hadn’t heard Sounds of Silence in a while, got it out and listened this morning. (The original album cover shows the two of them in winter coats and scarves heading up a dark, brush-lined trail that I assumed to be Central Park but in fact was in a rustic area near the Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A.) Produced by Bob Johnston, the Texan who was working with Dylan at Columbia, it’s a little noisy and rock aspirational, though it includes the elegant “April Come She Will” that almost seems out of place. “Richard Cory” is a harsh rebuke of egotistical American affluence and ends with Richard Cory “putting a bullet through his head.” And there’s a second song about suicide, “A Most Peculiar Man.” Had forgotten those details. Pop music was moving on from Be-Bob-a-Lula, and Simon & Garfunkel were a thing.

Footnote: Tom Wilson died of a heart attack in 1978 at the age of 47, but what a legacy: In addition to working with major jazz innovators like Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, he produced “Sound of Silence” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Good grief.

I DON’T RECALL the first time I heard “Sound of Silence” (either version), but I do remember the first time I heard Simon’s other anthem, “Bridge over Troubled Water.” The album with “Bridge” as the title song was released in January of 1970, but S&G previewed the song during a TV special on CBS in November, 1969, called The Songs of America. I watched it in the TV room of my fraternity (in black and white) and will never forget it.

S&G had decided not to do a typical TV special but to illustrate the rough patch America was going through. “Bridge” played over footage of the slain Martin Luther King and the funeral train of Bobby Kennedy. To this day when I hear the line “Sail on, silver girl…” I think of the emotional sight of that long train moving forward (when in fact Simon reportedly had added that verse in the studio, and “silver girl” referred to his wife Peggy’s first gray hairs). The power of the song was instant for me but apparently many Americans were unmoved, found the show too downbeat and changed channels, according to this account from the BBC:

Songs of America was screened on the eve of the country’s first draft lottery since World War Two, amid the years of the My Lai massacre, the Manson murders, the Days of Rage demonstrations in Chicago and the anti-Vietnam War March Against Death in Washington DC. But the average CBS viewer didn’t want to see the world crumbling. 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. This was the US public’s inauspicious introduction to what would become one of the defining songs of the 1970s and beyond: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Footnote 2: Simon composed the song with Garfunkel’s high register in mind, but was not happy when in concert Garfunkel would bow and bathe in the adulation at the conclusion without signaling that Paul had written it, allowing the audience to believe it was co-authored.

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, USA Today and other publications. He is the recipient of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music and the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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