The (Jewish) Sounds of Simon— Part I: The Garfunkel Years

Paul Simon is still going strong at 74, and is even releasing a new album in June 2016, Stranger to Stranger. He is one of those about whom it is fairly said they “need no introduction,” so we will delve right in to the question at hand: Simon is Jewish, but how Jewish is his songwriting?

Even on the first official Simon and Garfunkel album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., Simon is already using imagery from the Psalms and Torah, speaking of God and his People as a “shepherd” and “his sheep,” and of “a long road to Canaan,” in the song “Bleeker Street,” named after a road in Greenwich Village. (It should be noted that the duo was providing music for a Christian radio show in England at the time, which explains the presence of three Christian/Gospel numbers on the album.)

In the protest song, “He Was My Brother,” Simon writes about a Freedom Rider who was killed for his activism: “They shot my brother dead/ Because he hated what was wrong.” While he changed the details, the song was inspired by the death of three young activists working to register voters in Mississippi; two of them were Jewish (the other was African-American).

While not overtly Jewish, the song that put the duo on the map, “The Sound of Silence” (powerfully covered by the band Disturbed this year), does a very Jewish thing— it decries idolatry: “The people bowed and prayed/ To the neon god they’d made.”                                                                                                                 
On their follow up album, Sounds of Silence, they present an electrified remix of that song. They also offer a rumination on the temporary nature of life, echoing some of the sentiments of Koheleth/Ecclesiastes, with the song “Leaves That Are Green”: “Hello, hello, hello, hello/ Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye/ That’s all there is.”

Their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, has the song “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall,” about confusion and denial: “I’m blinded by the light/ Of God and Truth and Right/ And I wander in the night/ Without direction.” 

So Springsteen was not the first to use the expression “blinded by the light”… and Billy Joel was not the first to use a quickly recited list of pop-culture references as lyrics. In “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” Simon rattles off a list of his contemporary newsmakers who have influenced him… whether we wanted them to or not. The list includes several Jewish figures: writers Norman Mailer and Ayn Rand; music producers Phil Spector, Lou Adler, and Albert Grossman; comedian Lenny Bruce; and fellow songwriter Bob Dylan. Bruce’s death is also mentioned in newscast that plays under the duo singing “Silent Night.” 

The soundtrack to The Graduate recycles much of their material up to then, but it is interesting to note how Jewish a movie it was, considering the director (Mike Nichols), the screenwriter (Buck Henry), and the star (Dustin Hoffman). Even David Grusin, the jazz composer who wrote the other music in the soundtrack, representing the older generation, was Jewish; Grusin would later arrange the horn part of Simon’s hit “Late in the Evening” for Simon’s own movie, One Trick Pony.

Bookends, the duo’s penultimate album, features the favorite “Old Friends,” about two elderly gentlemen “sharing a park bench.” The song is not especially Jewish, but its introduction— “Voice of Old People”— is a recording of actual elderly people, taken at (I could not make this up) The United Home for Aged Hebrews in California.

Then, in the song “Fakin’ It,” Simon refers to an elder of his own— his grandfather, who died before Simon was born. This man was a tailor, and in this song, Simon muses: “I own the tailor’s face and hands.”

Their final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, won six Grammys, sold some 5 million copies, and is universally beloved. Its country-inflected track “Keep the Customer Satisfied” uses the image of a drifter treated as an outlaw as a metaphor for life as a travelling musician in an everyone’s-a-critic world: “I’ve been slandered!/ Libeled!/ I hear words I never heard in the Bible.”

(In the next installment, we will continue to search for references to Jewish people, places, and phrases in Paul Simon’s work… up to and including Graceland.)

Paul Wieder photo 2013
Paul Wieder is putting Jewish music on your playlist! Plus updates on Jewish music festivals, reviews of Jewish music websites and blogs, and insights from Jewish music producers and promoters. Let’s make Jewish music part of your well-balanced musical diet!... Read More

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