The last song Simon & Garfunkel ever recorded together, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ ranks as one of the best tracks in musical history. An iconic folk tale steeped in the personal problems of its writer Paul Simon and his professional partner Art Garfunkel. We take a look at the song in this week’s edition of ‘The Story Behind The Song’.
Performed by the iconic American folk double act Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ the track was recorded 50 years ago today and released in January of 1970 and shared as the follow-up to ‘The Boxer’. Produced by the band and Roy Halee, the track featured on the band’s fifth and last studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water. Written by Simon and performed largely on the piano, the song also employed techniques from Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ with the help of L.A. session musicians the Wrecking Crew.
While the track ill forever be attached to both the legendary singers Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel the song is deeply rooted both in Simon’s past and his then-present. While the song dealt with artistic and professional issues he was having with Art, the song was also rendered with the spiritual sounds of his teenage years.
Simon had always harboured an interest in gospel since hearing Sonny Til and the Orioles’ epic recording of ‘Crying in the Chapel’ as an adolescent. He told CBSN, “I loved the emotion of the singers and the songs, and there was something mysterious just about the word chapel because I didn’t know, at twelve or thirteen, what a chapel was or looked like. It probably would have been different if they had sung, ‘Cryin’ in the Synagogue.’”
One particular track on the Silvertones’ album by the name of ‘Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,’ a deeply spiritual song from darker days before the Civil war. Reverend Claude Jeter, the band’s lead singer, added a phrase which could be traced backed to the church, “I’ll be a bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name.” Something sparked in Paul Simon. His hours of continued musical musings had led him to something so many others would’ve missed. He landed on a gem.
Simon, speaking to the CBSN, said of writing the now-iconic melody, “It was just like that. The essence of the song took maybe twenty minutes; the first two verses were done in two hours. And the melody was something like fifteen notes, which is long. I thought, ‘This is better than I usually write.’” – You’re not wrong, Paul.
While Simon is a gifted writer when creating characters from his imagination, the first lines of the song were steeped in the now souring relationship with Art Garfunkel. He said, “I like the first lines of a song to be truthful, and those were,” he said. “I was feeling weary because of the problems with Artie and other things. I was also feeling small.” That’s not to say that Simon didn’t still draw on his wonderful talents as a storyteller to render the song with a new colour, “But then the song goes away from memoir. It comes from my imagination.”
As one of the last songs to be recorded by the pair, it holds an added weight of gravitas to proceedings. However, the sheer beauty of this track remains far beyond the end of the band.
It’s transcending and ethereal folk sound, only emphasised by the Gospel lines, makes ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ one of those songs to get lost in, to swan dive into with closed eyes and let the splash cleanse your soul.