On the evening of 30 November 1969, the silver-haired actor Robert Ryan introduced CBS viewers in the US to a buzzkill of historic proportions: Simon and Garfunkel’s first ever TV special. “These two young men have attracted a tremendous following among the youth of America with their lyrical interpretation of the world we live in,” said Ryan, who was a genuine fan. “We think you will find the next hour both entertaining and stimulating.”

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Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel certainly hoped so. According to executive producer Robert Drew, Simon talked about using the primetime opportunity as a Trojan horse for “a home movie about where he thought the nation was”. Directed by actor Charles Grodin, Songs of America used the duo’s hits to soundtrack footage of riots, marches and the war in Vietnam, much to the horror of sponsors AT&T, who demanded their $600,000 investment back. Even more sympathetic viewers found the movie’s earnest sermonising hard to swallow.

We first meet Simon and Garfunkel in the back of a car. Coming off the back of four hit albums and two number one singles in four years, the 27-year-old superstars are not overburdened with humility. When Garfunkel brings up the subject of America’s imminent bicentennial, a camera-conscious Simon gazes into the distance and asks solemnly: “Think it’s gonna make it?” This mood of pensive pomposity comes to dominate the film, as Simon frets: “What’s the point of this album? The world is crumbling”, and Garfunkel less coherently ponders “the chaos of what the hell is the whole thing about”.

It was a kind of white gospel song, stately and hymn-like, building to a shattering climax

They did have a point. Songs of America was screened on the eve of the country’s first draft lottery since World War Two, amid the years of the My Lai massacre, the Manson murders, the Days of Rage demonstrations in Chicago and the anti-Vietnam War March Against Death in Washington DC. But the average CBS viewer didn’t want to see the world crumbling. The heaviest sequence was a dark twist on the film’s travelogue theme, juxtaposing clips of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King on the campaign trail with footage of mourners watching Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train go by. The musical accompaniment was unfamiliar: a kind of white gospel song, stately and hymn-like, building to a shattering climax as the long black train sped through America’s broken heart. One million viewers responded by turning the dial and watching the figure skating on NBC instead. Some sent hate mail. Songs of America wouldn’t be seen again for over 40 years. This was the US public’s inauspicious introduction to what would become one of the defining songs of the 1970s and beyond: Bridge Over Troubled Water.

‘My greatest song’

While writing songs for the duo’s fifth album in the spring of 1969, Simon had borrowed an old Swan Silvertones album from the musician Al Kooper. Listening to the gospel group’s version of the 19th-Century spiritual Oh Mary Don’t You Weep over and over again in his Upper East Side apartment, Simon was thunderstruck by a line improvised by lead singer Claude Jeter: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.” Simon grabbed his guitar, sketched out some gospel chords, and began writing his own song around that image. (Two years later, he was introduced to Jeter and wrote him a cheque on the spot.) Actually, it didn’t feel like he was actively writing it, more that it was flowing through him. Something about the sturdy grace of the melody and the Biblical register of “I will lay me down” made it seem as if the song had been around forever.

“I have no idea where it came from,” he recalled in the 2011 documentary The Harmony Game. “It just came, all of a sudden… I remember thinking, this is considerably better than I usually write.” He told people he worked with that he had written “my greatest song” and, referencing The Beatles’ classic, “my Yesterday”.

The melody and lyrics weren’t quite right yet but Simon knew that Bridge Over Troubled Waters (as it was then called) was “exceptional” even as he wondered if the words were “too simple”. On songs such as The Sound of Silence, Mrs Robinson and America, he used characters, narratives and vividly precise imagery to map national unease onto personal anxiety. The uncharacteristically timeless, universal language of Bridge Over Troubled Water really does seem to hail from somewhere else. The celebrated New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint liked to say: “That song had two writers: Paul Simon and God.” Fortunately, God wasn’t registered with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

The opening line about feeling weary and small was personal. While Simon was in New York writing songs, Garfunkel was off in Mexico appearing in Mike Nichols’ movie Catch-22 with his new Hollywood friends, including Charles Grodin. Simon felt abandoned, taken for granted. He was therefore feeling hypersensitive when Garfunkel finally reconnected with him in Los Angeles in June and heard the demo. Paul thought that only Artie’s choirboy voice could do justice to the song but Artie liked the sound of Paul’s falsetto and hesitated before agreeing to front the song. Garfunkel meant it as a compliment; Simon took it as a snub. Such was the state of their partnership in 1969. When Robert Drew first sat down with the duo he came away thinking that the film would be “Simon and Garfunkel’s last stand”.

Recording the song began in August 1969 in Hollywood, where producer Roy Halee gathered the elite session musicians known as the Hollywood Golden Trio: drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Joe Osborn and keyboardist Larry Knechtel. It was Knechtel’s challenging job to translate the music from guitar to piano according to Simon’s paradoxical brief: “Paul wanted it to be gospel but not gospel,” he recalled. Simon imagined that Bridge Over Troubled Water would be a “little hymn” but Garfunkel and Halee insisted that the song needed to be immense. It therefore needed a third verse, which Simon dashed off in the studio. It opened with a message to his wife-to-be Peggy Harper, who had recently fretted about finding her first grey hairs: “Sail on, silver girl.”

Garfunkel wanted the song to start quietly and gradually build to a transcendent finale in the vein of Phil Spector’s work with The Righteous Brothers — “like an airplane taking off”. Simon wasn’t sure about the bombastic strings (nor the fact that arranger Ernie Freeman had paid so little attention to the lyrics that the sheet music was titled Like a Pitcher of Water) but he had to admit that it sounded undeniable. Once the music was wrapped, Garfunkel recorded his showstopping vocal in New York in November. Simon, at Garfunkel’s insistence, wasn’t in the room.

The album was a goliath: 10 weeks at number one; six Grammy awards; 25 million sales worldwide

Several songs from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album were debuted on a short tour that autumn and Bridge Over Troubled Water left audiences breathless. It may feel overfamiliar now but imagine being in the crowd one night in November 1969, hearing Garfunkel say: “This is also one of our new songs. It’s called Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and then hearing that for the first time. And imagine being Paul Simon, waiting in the wings with a cigarette while the other guy got all the applause for his song. That shouldn’t have bugged him – it was his idea – but it did. “He felt like I should have done it,” Simon grumbled to Rolling Stone magazine four bitter years later. “And many times I’m sorry I didn’t do it.”

An instant classic

Despite the song’s warm reception, Simon and Garfunkel had absorbed the industry wisdom that long, stately ballads weren’t radio-friendly and proposed the jaunty Cecilia as the album’s taster single. But after the first album playback, Columbia Records president Clive Davis was adamant that this was no ordinary ballad. “I felt Cecilia would be a hit but Bridge was something more,” he told Simon’s biographer Robert Hilburn. “It was a landmark record.”

Davis was right. The song’s slow-burning arc became a virtue. Most hits made sense in snatches, overheard from a passing car radio, but Bridge Over Troubled Water held the listener spellbound: you had to hear the whole thing or else you’d miss the payoff. Released on 20 January 1970, it held the top spot for six weeks in the US and three in the UK. Hard on the single’s heels, the album was a goliath: 10 weeks at number one; six Grammy awards; 25 million sales worldwide. In the UK, it occupied the top of the charts for an astonishing 35 weeks over an 18-month period. It just kept coming back.

Ironically, this song about unbending loyalty and solidarity coincided with the disintegration of a friendship that stretched back to sixth grade. Robert Drew wasn’t exactly wrong about Simon and Garfunkel’s last stand, just a little premature. “We didn’t really fight until Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon said years later. “That had a lot to do with Artie making a movie at the same time.”

Their fraying partnership could survive one movie but not two. After the album came out, Artie confessed that he had committed to co-starring in another Mike Nichols film, Carnal Knowledge. Paul felt betrayed; Artie felt held back. According to Simon, “something was broken between us”, and it couldn’t be fixed. On 18 July 1970, at New York’s Forest Hills tennis stadium, they closed the final date of the Bridge Over Troubled Water tour and, without telling anyone, went their separate ways.

Meanwhile, the song proceeded without them, becoming an instant standard that would yield hundreds of cover versions. By the end of the year it had already been performed by Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, Merry Clayton, the Jackson 5 and The Supremes. In 1971 Aretha Franklin took the song to church, confirming Bridge Over Troubled Water’s status as a secular gospel song. In Oh Mary Don’t You Weep, the voice promising to be a bridge is obviously God. In Simon’s song, it’s a friend or lover, extending an encouraging hand, but the emotional force is similar. The singer will comfort you, dry your eyes, ease your mind, take your side.

 

At the shivering dawn of the 1970s, the US craved songs of broad-shouldered, vaguely religious reassurance like Bridge Over Troubled Water and its successor at the top of the Billboard chart, The Beatles’ Let It Be. The likes of My Sweet Lord, You’ve Got a Friend and Lean on Me followed in their wake. For later generations, echoes of Bridge Over Troubled Water’s consoling message and “airplane taking off” structure could be heard in REM’s Everybody Hurts and Coldplay’s Fix You. In the same ballpark are Robbie Williams’ Angels, Blur’s Tender, The Streets’ Dry Your Eyes and pretty much any anthem that pleads “hold on”. It drew up one hell of a blueprint.

What distinguishes the song from most of its descendants is the forgotten political context revealed in Songs of America. It was a song written when the brightest promises of the 1960s were turning to ash, by a sensitive, Nixon-hating liberal who found himself trying to fill a God-shaped hole. In the film Simon insists that he’s no protest singer (“I don’t think about getting through to somebody”), yet the socio-political background that Grodin made visible on Songs of America was also audible, and the song’s first cohort of listeners knew it.

For subsequent generations, Bridge Over Troubled Water has become a musical first-aid kit to be cracked open in times of need. Simon performed it at benefit concerts for the victims of 9/11 in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Lewisham and Greenwich NHS choir merged it with Fix You to make the UK’s Christmas number one in 2015. It returned to the top 18 months later when Simon Cowell chose it for Artists for Grenfell and Stormzy’s introduction gave this predictable choice a necessary jolt of indignation.

Fifty years after Bridge Over Troubled Water, as another decade begins on a note of apprehension and exhaustion, the anguished protest hidden inside this overplayed song is easier to appreciate. In the face of what Garfunkel would call “the chaos of what the hell is the whole thing about”, you’re reminded how much weight one song can carry.

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