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BEACON Senior News

The gospel roots of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”

Jul 26, 2021 11:18AM ● By Randal C. Hill
Album cover of Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water

When you’re down and out, 

When you’re on the street

When evening falls so hard, 

I will comfort you  

Paul Simon’s inspiration for his masterpiece creation of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” came from a Civil War-era spiritual called “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” which contained the line “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.” To Simon, though, the words of the spiritual represented more about friendship—and its attendant bonds and responsibilities—than it did about religion.

His future classic began as an understated two-verse tune, which he composed first on his guitar, then switched to piano in order to better realize the gospel influence. Upon completion of the first draft of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon was so affected, he said, that he burst into tears. 

When asked later about the enigmatic lyric of “Sail on, silver girl,” he admitted to it being an inside joke between him and his wife, Peggy Harper. 

“She was upset one day,” Simon explained, “when she had found two or three gray hairs on her head.” 

Simon imagined the tune as a perfect fit for Garfunkel’s soaring tenor voice. Garfunkel, though, argued to the contrary and said that, to him, it was Simon’s voice that was more suitable for the lead vocal. Garfunkel also felt that the song was too short and needed a dynamic conclusion to really bring home the majesty of the composition. 

Simon grumbled, but eventually did add a final verse and even okayed a crashing drum finale. He did, however, convince Garfunkel to take the primary vocal on what would become one of pop music’s most spiritually oriented secular works.

Simon and Garfunkel’s track record of 1960s chart success almost guaranteed that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” would be welcomed by S&G fans. However, the pair had never issued a single that ran so long—it was nearly five minutes in length—and Simon worried it would be too lengthy for the tightly controlled AM radio.

It sold six million copies worldwide. 

The single—and the album of the same name—became the duo’s grandest success. Each reached No. 1 on its respective chart and paved the way for Simon and Garfunkel to garner six Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Contemporary Song, Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Engineered Recording. 

It was a fitting way to end a brilliant career for the two artists from Queens, New York. Pals since the sixth grade, Simon and Garfunkel had begun singing together as teenagers by imitating the Everly Brothers, calling themselves Tom and Jerry. Their 1957 minor hit of “Hey, Schoolgirl” first put them on the charts, and they began using their real names in 1966.

By the time they called it quits as professional artists in 1970, Simon and Garfunkel had recorded six best-selling Columbia Records LPs as well as 12 Top 40 Columbia singles, three of which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Read more of Randal's writing.