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Music

Watch Paul Simon explain how he wrote 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'

It takes a certain degree of sonic ingenuity to come up with something as far-reaching and as gorgeous as ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. It was an extraordinary work, and one Paul Simon felt humble that he had written. He felt the piece encapsulated his interests in gospel music, and he gave it to partner Art Garfunkel to flesh out. Simon later regretted giving Garfunkel the piece, because it became so closely attached to his voice, but in later years he sang it in an effort to “reclaim his lost child”.

But he was clearly blown away by the sentiment of the song in question, thinking it belonged on another level of songcraft. Certainly, the tune is richer in melody than the majority of his oeuvre. “I have no idea where it came from… It just came, all of a sudden,” Simon recalls in the clip from the 2011 documentary The Harmony Game. “I remember thinking this is considerably better than I usually write.”

But the song isn’t entirely original, although Simon was good enough to admit as such in an interview. Some of the chords emanated from listening to Bach, which Simon demonstrated on his acoustic guitar. As ever, he wrote the song on guitar, although it was produced on a piano for the finished piece. The song also boasts Garfunkel’s soaring falsetto, giving the song a more malleable quality. The song is also reminiscent of Swan Silvertones’ recording of the 19th-century spiritual, ‘Oh Mary Don’t You Weep’, which was said to be a favourite of Simon’s.

But the song also boasts some of Simon’s personal flavours, and the lyric ‘Sail on, silver girl’ stems from a conversation he enjoyed with his girlfriend and betrothed Peggy Harper, “who had recently fretted about finding her first grey hairs.” Whether or not she enjoyed the joke is up for debate, although some commentators have suggested that the song is actually about “heroin”.

Considering Simon’s metier, he likely would have written a tune about heroin if he was to write about the drug. Like Lou Reed did with ‘Heroin’ and John Lennon did with ‘Cold Turkey’, Simon would have embraced the topic head on, if he wanted to tackle the subject.

Simon offered the song to Garfunkel because “only Artie’s choirboy voice could do justice to the song,” and listening to the recording in 2022, it’s almost impossible to visualise anyone else in the world singing it with such grace, pathos and poise. But the finished result is neither the single talent of one man over the other, but the combination of the two forces to create something longer-lasting and impactful.

The vocal is Garfunkel’s, but the melody and lyrics are Simon’s, and the finished result is an impressive synchronisation of the two influences under one banner. Indeed, in many ways, it is the Simon & Garfunkel track, and in many ways, it will continue to endure in the public eye for as long as it possibly can manage. Like a bridge over troubled water, indeed.