Smithsonian Honors Paul Simon

National Museum of American History Director Dr. Anthea Hartig reads proclamation honoring Paul Simon (Photo by Talking ‘Bout My Generation)

By Dave Price

If you enjoyed music in the 1960s and were paying attention to the words, you were listening to innovative, powerful lyrics written by some great future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame song writers. There was Bob Dylan. There were John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And there was Paul Simon, who with his singing partner Art Garfunkel, created some of the decade’s most memorable tunes.

Simon, who has been enshrined in the Rock Hall twice, once with Garfunkel and once as a solo singer/songwriter, and was the recipient of the Library of Congress’ inaugural Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, received another honor last month as the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. presented him with its prestigious Great American Medal for his significant contributions not only to American music, but also his contributions to causes as a philanthropist.

Simon’s songs include “I Am a Rock,” “America,” “The Boxer,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “Kodachrome,” and “Graceland”. But the tune that started it all was “The Sound of Silence” where Simon contended “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls … whispering the sound of silence”. 

Simon talked at length at the Smithsonian ceremony about that song, which became Garfunkel and his first big hit, climbing to number 1 on the pop charts in 1966. In 2013, “Sound of Silence” was placed on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry for its cultural, aesthetic, and historical importance.

When the song was first released as a pure acoustic folk song, it was a commercial failure, causing the Simon/Garfunkel duo to break up. However, in 1965, folk rock was emerging as a popular pop music genre. Trying to take advantage of that folk-rock movement, producer Tom Wilson, who had worked with Dylan on his folk-rock albums, added electric instruments to the track, it was re-released as a single, and a reunited Simon and Garfunkel were on their way to stardom.

‘“The Sound of Silence’ was the best song I had written up to that point,” Simon told the crowd at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, noting he had written the tune when he was 21.

Some believe the song refers to the assassination of President John Kennedy, but Simon said the song was composed before that tragedy. He actually wrote the tune in his bathroom, where he would go and turn off the lights to concentrate on his song writing.

“I was able to sit by myself and dream,” Simon said. “I was always happy doing that. The bathroom had tiles, so it was a slight echo chamber. I’d turn on the faucet so the water would run … I like that sound, it’s very smoothing to me. And I’d play in the dark ‘Hello, darkness my old friend/I’ve come to talk to you again”.

The song explores a strong sense of alienation that many young people were feeling at the time. “It’s a young lyric, but not bad for a 21-year-old,” Simon said. “It’s not a sophisticated thought. It wasn’t something that I was experiencing at some deep profound level – nobody’s listening to me, nobody’s listening to anyone. It was post-adolescent angst, but it had some level of truth to it and it resonated with millions of people”.

Like many other songwriters, Simon says he isn’t certain exactly where “Sound of Silence” came from. “You become a conduit and the music comes through you,” he says. “It’s yours but it’s almost like you didn’t write it”.

In 1967, director Mike Nichols was filming what would become his award-winning movie The Graduate. Nichols had commissioned Simon to create some music for the film. But, in the interim, the director was using already released Simon and Garfunkel songs as scene soundtracks until new music could be recorded. Nichols, however, decided to keep “The Sound of Silence” in the movie, which only added to the song’s renown.

Of course, The Graduate did include a new Simon and Garfunkel song whose popularity eclipsed that of “Sound of Silence”. And that song – the unforgettable “Mrs. Robinson” with its shout-out to former Yankees baseball great with the line “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you” 

Simon, who grew up in New York was then – and remains – a huge fan of the New York Yankees. However, after the song was released he heard DiMaggio was upset with being included. “I heard he thought it was some hippie making fun of him, not that he was a hero of the song” Simon said. 

Eventually, Simon encountered the Yankee slugger, who by this time was fine with being recognized lyrically in one of the great songs of the ‘60s. He did, however, have one question. “Why did you write that line about where did you go?  I didn’t go anywhere. I’m always on TV selling coffee,” Simon explained. “So that gave me a chance to talk to Joe DiMaggio about metaphor and things like that”.

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