The wordless chorus has become a gimmick in sing-along balladry and throwaway pop. Done badly, it sounds like lazy songwriting or — to take a phrase from Somerset Maugham — “unearned emotion.” At its best, a wordless chorus is a moment of sublimity, expressing beauty or tragedy before which language fails. Either way, it usually starts as a placeholder, in brackets. (As in, “we’ll put something better here when we get around to it.”) Only later in the songwriting process does it become a choice.
In what may be one of the greatest choices of wordless choruses on record, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” channels its raw power in only two repeated syllables (and possibly a word?): “Lie-la-lie, Lie-la-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie….” The chorus of Paul Simon’s hit from 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water needs no more elaboration than the “arresting whipcrack of a snare drum” (played by wrecking crew drummer Hal Blaine), Dan Einav writes at Financial Times:
[The Boxer] was the result of a painstaking and protracted recording process that took more than 100 hours, used numerous backing musicians and even spanned a number of locations — from Nashville, to St Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University, to the somewhat less ethereal setting of a hallway abutting an echoey elevator shaft at one of Columbia Records’ New York studios.
Simon’s epic narrative song was hardly like “the unvarnished, homespun records that were perhaps more closely associated with folk music at the time,” and that was exactly the idea.
Some saw the “lie-la-lie” as a dig at Bob Dylan’s inauthentic presentation as a Woody Guthrie-like figure. Simon debunked the theory in a 1984 interview quoted in the Polyphonic video at the top. “I think the song was about me: everybody’s beating me up.” He explained the theme of the beaten but unbowed contender as coming out of the figurative drubbing he and Art Garfunkel had taken from the critics:
For the first few years, it was just praise. It took two or three years for people to realize that we weren’t strange creatures that emerged from England but just two guys from Queens who used to sing rock ‘n’ roll. And maybe we weren’t real folkies at all! May we weren’t even hippies!”
He wisely steered the song away from a narrative about a guy who wasn’t even a hippie. And being a guy from Queens, he could tell a New York Story like few others could. Simon references his frustration at being misunderstood, but his protagonist’s struggle to make it in the big city is far more universal than a songwriter’s angst.
The boxer is an “archetypal character representative of the struggle and loneliness that can come with working class life,” notes Polyphonic. “The second verse is a careful portrait of this existence, depicting the boxer as a young man trying to find his footing in a harsh world.”
When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places
Only they would know
The middle-class Simon didn’t live this character’s life, nor did he pursue a boxing career. But his ability to imagine the lives of others through story-songs like “The Boxer” has been one of his greatest strengths as a writer. Simon’s narrative gift served him well over and over in his career, and has served his fans. We can feel the feelings of Simon’s schoolyard delinquent, his frustrated lover looking for a way out, and his bitter, down-and-out tragic hero trying to make it in the big city, whether or not we’ve been there ourselves.
In the videos above, you can learn more about the writing of this classic cry of desperation and struggle from Polyphonic; and, learn about the recording from musicians who played on it, including drummer Hal Blaine. Then, see Simon and Garfunkel fill out the song’s melody with their timeless harmonies live in Central Park, and, just above, see Simon by himself in 2020, playing a solo version dedicated to his fellow New Yorkers combating the fear and suffering of COVID during lockdown.