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.