Art Garfunkel (left) and Paul Simon. November 30, 1969. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Bridge Over Troubled Water: 50 Years On

Half a century on, the song remains an an eternally affecting evocation of the need for solidarity and comfort

Artillery Row

If you had been fortunate enough to see Simon and Garfunkel performing in concert at Carnegie Hall at the end of 1969, you would have been in for a particular treat. Not only were they playing the folk-tinged songs that had made their name, such as ‘Mrs Robinson’, ‘The Sound of Silence’ and ‘Scarborough Fair’, but they were performing some of their new music from their forthcoming LP publicly for the first time. Anyone who had heard the likes of ‘The Boxer’ and ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ would have instantly surmised that this was a huge leap forward for Paul Simon as a songwriter, and that Art Garfunkel’s singing had a passion and a force to it that represented a significant evolution for him, too. However, it was one particular song that seemed to suggest that something entirely different and even more thrilling lurked in their arsenal. One can only imagine how it would have been introduced to the audience. ‘This is a new song, and it’s going to be the title track for our new album. It’s called ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. 

It has become shorthand for the kind of support that people need at times of trouble

Today, half a century on, it not only remains Simon and Garfunkel’s most famous song, but an eternally affecting evocation of the need for solidarity and comfort amidst the emotional or physical wreckage of loss and grief. It was little wonder that, in 2017, Simon Cowell assembled a group of singers and musicians, Artists for Grenfell, to cover it as a charity record to raise money for those affected by the Grenfell Tower conflagration. It has become shorthand for both the kind of support that people need at times of trouble – and so, with the current crisis sweeping the world, it has an especial resonance now– but also, thanks to its sweeping orchestral crescendo, it has become synonymous with a kind of epic and anthemic song writing that Paul Simon seldom, if ever, indulged in throughout his career. It has sold millions and millions of copies, and remains one of the most beloved songs of the 20th century, even if it is still pillaged by those who see it as a shorthand for a song about a kind of stately public grief. 

Simon acknowledged his major influences for the song as being a mixture of Bach’s ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’, a Christian hymn that revolved around the Passion narrative, and the gospel song ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’, which was recorded by the singer Claude Jeter with his group the Swan Silvertones in 1958. Jeter’s song contained the line ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name’, and Simon eventually gave him a substantial cheque as a thank-you when the two men met. Yet, generous though the gesture was, there was another, greater influence on the song, and that was the language of the Bible. It is certain that Simon had the Gospel of John in mind while he was writing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, with its themes of forgiveness and comfort, and its famous lines ‘Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends’ resonated deeply with him, for both artistic and personal reasons. 

At the beginning of 1970, the often strained partnership between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had reached a point of terminal fracture. Garfunkel, who had often chafed at being regarded as the junior non-song writing member of the partnership, wished to pursue an acting career, and so both he and Simon were cast in Mike Nichols’ version of Joseph Heller’s apparently unfilmable novel Catch-22. Nichols had famously used their music in his film The Graduate, and so Simon believed that he was beginning a fruitful and interesting artistic partnership with Nichols. Shortly before filming began, he was disabused of this idea when he was told that the role he was due to play, Dunbar, had been cut from the script. Garfunkel, however, was not only allowed to continue in the part of Lieutenant Nately, but was also cast by Nichols in his follow-up film, Carnal Knowledge, which meant that he would be away for many months, bifurcating his partnership with Simon. They had begun recording the album that would become Bridge Over Troubled Water in late 1968, but Garfunkel’s thespian interests meant that they would have to wait until the summer of 1969 to continue work on it. 

Simon was alternately angry and resigned about what he viewed as a snub. He wrote the song ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ as a veiled attack on Garfunkel’s selfishness and his own feelings of isolation – ‘Tom, get your plane right on time/ I know you’ve been eager to fly now’ – but, in a more temperate humour, began work on a gospel-influenced piece, inspired by Jeter’s song and his lyric. He later claimed that had no particular understanding of how he wrote it, saying ‘Where did that come from? It doesn’t sound like me.’ 

As it stood, it was a simple, two-verse piece about the importance of friendship in awful circumstances. Inspired by the widespread sense of disaffection in America in 1969, with mass protests against the Vietnam War, it attempted to encapsulate the nobility of humans caring for one another, even when ‘times get rough/And friends just can’t be found’ (another concealed dig at Garfunkel’s absence) and ‘when you’re down and out/when you’re on the street/when evening falls so hard’, Simon promises ‘I will comfort you’. Even ‘when pain is all around’, the songwriter vows ‘like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.’ 

Simon suggested that Garfunkel, returned from being a film star, should sing the song solo, a rarity for them, and he accepted, but with two conditions. Firstly, he felt that it should move away from the spare, simple guitar-based music that the duo were synonymous with towards something more grandiose, beginning with piano and ending with an orchestral arrangement. And secondly, he felt that the song was too short and needed a third verse, of a more redemptive and uplifting calibre. 

Arthur Garfunkel (L) and Paul Simon hold a Grammy for best record and best album of the year for “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Simon holds a third Grammy for writing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” which was also named best contemporary song of 1970. (Bettmann via Getty)

Simon agreed to his requests, with some reluctance, and wrote a final verse that he always claimed was a private joke between him and his then-wife Peggy Harper about her emerging grey hairs. However, the line ‘Sail on, silver girl’ has often been interpreted as an allusion to heroin use, despite both Simon and Garfunkel denying this. Whatever the truth is, the sweeping, billowing finale, orchestrated by arranger Ernie Freeman, had a considerably more optimistic and stirring feel to it than the body of the song, helped by Garfunkel’s soaring, never-bettered vocals, even if its sentiments that ‘Your time has come to shine/All your dreams are on their way’ seem entirely at odds with the more downbeat and quieter lyrics of the first verses.  

The song was released at the beginning of January 1970, and, despite being a significant deviation from Simon and Garfunkel’s usual sound – the first single released from the album was the rather more conventional ‘The Boxer’ – it was an enormous commercial and critical success. It topped the British charts for three weeks and the American ones for six, ending the year as the best-selling song in the United States. It won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year, and was covered by the likes of Aretha Franklin (explicitly recognising its gospel roots), Elvis Presley and, many years later, Johnny Cash. It even somewhat overshadowed the Beatles’ comparable ‘Let It Be’, which was released in March 1970. Simon later commented that ‘They are very similar songs, certainly in instrumentation’, but was too graceful to note that their central lyrical preoccupation – of a dire situation that has to be overcome with sympathy and compassion – was mirrored by the circumstances of the dissolution of both groups, and that the songs acted as their effective epitaphs in both cases. 

Simon and Garfunkel had had enough of working together by the time that the song was released; as Simon said, ‘At that point, I just wanted out’. And so began a kind of semi-amicable estrangement which would last throughout their subsequent careers, interspersed with occasional high-profile reunions, such as a free concert for 500,000 people in Central Park in September 1981, and rare, lucrative and personally tense tours. One of the reasons for the continued difficulty in their relationships was Simon’s candid irritation that his best-known and most musically dynamic song was always sung by Garfunkel and not by him. He commented that ‘[Garfunkel] felt I should have done it, and many times on a stage, though, when I’d be sitting off to the side and Larry Knechtel would be playing the piano and Artie would be singing “Bridge”, people would stomp and cheer when it was over, and I would think, “That’s my song, man.’ No doubt the millions and millions of dollars that he has banked in royalties over the years have gone some way to cushioning the blow. 

The song remains an intriguing exercise in how two stubborn but complementary sensibilities can come together and create a flash of alchemy

In addition to the apparently endless cover versions of the song and its now-ubiquitous presence in charity concerts (it has also appeared at fundraisers or benefits for Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti Earthquake and 9/11), ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ has become, along with ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Hey Jude’, the template for countless songs about stoicism in the face of adversity, many of which have stolen its lyrical themes, structure and soaring ending with bare-faced impunity. It is easy to listen to songs such as R.E.M’s ‘Everybody Hurts’, Oasis’ ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’ and Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ – all staples of a certain kind of weepy, lighters-in-the-air stadium rock sensibility – and see that they owe a significant debt to their progenitor. In fact, an entire sub-genre of mournful piano ballads that became popular shortly after the turn of the millennium, and were largely the preserve of post-Britpop acts trying to inject sensitivity and a female-friendly approach into a genre that had often been associated with a macho boorishness, could all be seen as having their roots in Paul Simon’s original song. 

None, however, have done it as elegantly or brilliantly. Whether it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in his partnership with Garfunkel or a perfect epitaph to one of the great American musical duos, ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ remains one of the greatest songs of the 20th century, as well as an intriguing exercise in how two stubborn but complementary sensibilities can come together and create an unexpected but brilliant flash of alchemy. Sail on, silver girl, indeed.  

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