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

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Simon & Gar­funkel Sing “The Sound of Silence” 45 Years After Its Release, and Just Get Haunt­ing­ly Bet­ter with Time

Art Gar­funkel Lists 1195 Books He Read Over 45 Years, Plus His 157 Favorites (Many Free)

Tom Pet­ty Takes You Inside His Song­writ­ing Craft

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

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Comments (9)
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  • Mn says:

    He’s obvi­ous­ly high in this inter­view 😂

  • Larry says:

    As great a song B.O.T.W. is (and it is my #1 all-time favorite), major cred­it has to go to ses­sion pianist Lar­ry Knectel. The intro to the song is one of the most gor­geous exam­ples of piano music in rock/pop songs I can think of. His play­ing over the length of the song demon­strates how huge a dynam­ic range the piano has when in the hands of a mas­ter.

  • WW says:

    Paul may have wrote it, but Art sang it oh-so-VERY-well…and Paul hat­ed him for it. Good for Art!

  • Steve G says:

    The cir­cum­stances in the US are sim­i­lar today as they were when I was a nine year old ado­les­cent boy climb­ing trees. This song could eas­i­ly fit our times in 2021.

  • Robert Tuckey says:

    I had just grad­u­at­ed high school in 1970 and went off to the moun­tains to work on a con­struc­tion project. Some­one put the record on a turntable in the lodge over­look­ing the lake. It was incred­i­ble and I will always remem­ber that moment in time. Thank you Paul and Art.

  • Frank says:

    Thanks for this trip down mem­o­ry lane.

  • Guy Williams says:

    This inter­view in the time that per­form­ers, did­n’t want their audi­ence to know, they did­n’t write the lyrics. Paul told me in 73, when I deliv­ered the song kotacrome to him in con­cert, he told me that, all the singer song writer’s, wrote only music and the lyrics, I wrote, matched the music that had no lyrics.
    Don Ker­sh­n­er in 1967 said the same thing.

    Love Paul’s music

  • Mark says:

    The entire world fell into seri­ous­ly trou­bled waters in 2020.

  • Ellen pennell says:

    Art Gar­funkel sang that song so beautifully.i think he sings any song beau­ti­ful­ly. Deal with it Paul Simon.

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