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"Bridge Over Troubled Water"
Simon and Garfunkel
Simon and Garfunkel

One of the most illuminating moments on the 1993 Paul Simon box-set was a late 60s recording of Simon playing a fragment he is in the process of developing.

At that stage the two verses didn’t even have a name. The song will later be called "Hymn" - and later still, when its lyric is fully developed, the string arranger will mishear the eventual title as "Like A Pitcher Of Water". But within a few years, some 50 million people around the world will know the piece as "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

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"there was a real classic song aching to get out."

Simon & Garfunkel were already successful by the time they released their fifth album together early in 1970, but "Bridge Over Troubled Water" sent them ballistic. At the dawn of a new decade, with civil unrest in America and protest mounting against the escalation of the war in Vietnam … the title track was welcomed as a soothing balm for troubled times.

Paul Simon has said that his inspiration for the song came from "Oh Mary Don’t You Weep", a recording by a gospel group called the Swan Silvertones, on which the singer scats: 'I’ll be your bridge over deep water…'

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"Simon always intended the song to be in the gospel mould"

The arrangement owed a clear debt to Phil Spector’s production of the Righteous Brothers’ "Ol’ Man River", on which the Wagnerian producer held everything tightly in check until the final verse, when he unleashed the full epic might of his Wall of Sound.

Ironically, for all the soothing tranquillity of "Bridge Over Troubled Water", its success would prove to be the final breaking point for a partnership that had endured since the very birth of rock’n’roll.

Art Garfunkel had been away filming Catch-22 in Mexico, but on his return to America he took exception to "Cuba Si, Nixon No", the song Simon intended to use as the album’s 12th track. Simon was also unhappy, irritated by the delays caused by Art’s acting commitments and resentful of the saccharine edge he felt Garfunkel gave to his songs.

Art Garfunkel
"I was never interested in the idea of acting"

Paul Simon’s powerful classic is set in a gospel frame, especially the title hook - listen to the soulful seventh chord under "Water". Art Garfunkel’s translucent vocal steers clear of cliche, and the track really takes off when the lyric jumps out of genre and a harmony on the third is introduced for "Sail On Silver Girl", reaching an emotional peak at "I’m sailing right behind" over rising 4th/9th/5th major chords.
Dominic King

During 1970 the pair toured for one last time to promote "Bridge Over Troubled Water" - and then they were gone. But the song lived on. And on. And on.

The split gave Simon the chance of a solo career and allowed him to make harder-edged music, and over the next 30 years he developed into a fascinating and eclectic craftsman. Yet, even today, 33 years since the world first heard the song, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" remains a benchmark.

The combination of Simon's soothing words, Garfunkel's soaring vocal and the knockout punch of the final verse… all the elements combined to make "Bridge Over Troubled Water" a song not just of its time, but for all time.

Patrick Humphries
© BBCi

Recommended reading:
The Complete Guide To The Music Of Paul Simon And Simon & Garfunkel. Chris Charlesworth (Omnibus Press, 1997)
Recommended link:
Songs on the Couch

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