like a bridge

A funny thing happened while I was writing about the music of 1971.  I got an earworm, one of those songs that you can’t get out of your head (a topic I’ve visited before).  But it wasn’t one of the 1971 songs I had referenced.

Maybe you remember it.

The song starts with a beautiful piano introduction which then becomes the accompaniment for a quiet solo voice:

When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all

It could be that the rest of it comes to you rather easily.  (Or, you can listen to it now.)

There is a connection to 1971; on March 16 of that year, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” swept the big awards at the Grammys for 1970:  Best Record and Best Album for Simon and Garfunkel, and Best Song for Paul Simon, who created it.

Unlike most earworms, I know what triggered it; my life partner had sent me a video about the making of the song.  Not only did “Bridge” keep spinning in my head as I was processing all of that other music for the previous posting, but it stayed with me for more than a month thereafter.

There’s a message in there somewhere.

If you go back to those opening lines, it’s safe to say that we’ve all been alone, “weary, feeling small.”  While we might one day have imagined that others don’t ever feel that way, with enough years we realize that’s not the case.  The most boastful people are often the most damaged and insecure — and those living off of a pile of money find it can’t buy happiness.  Granted, some individuals have more advantages than others, but no one escapes the human condition.

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you

The most challenging times can be hard to escape, especially on your own.  The power of the song comes not just from the acknowledgement of the pain, but from the offers — the pledges — that are given.  In addition to the ones above, “I’ll take your part” . . . “I will lay me down” . . . “I’m sailing right behind” . . . “I will ease your mind.”

Like a bridge over troubled water

With this constantly on my mind, I decided to listen to Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon, an audiobook that was culled from thirty hours of interviews with Simon, including impromptu singing and playing, plus interviews with others and music from across his more than six decades of songwriting.

More than anything, it is a fascinating dive into the creative process — and Simon’s restless energy.  Unlike many other stars, he has continually renewed his sound by exploring different musical traditions and molding unusual partnerships with other artists.

Way back when, Simon had the beginnings of “Bridge,” including a bit of a theme from a Bach chorale, but he was stuck.  Then the spark came by chance when he was listening to “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” by the Swan Silvertones.  Toward the end of that gospel song by the Reverend Claude Jeter is this line:  “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.”  From that inspiration came what podcast host Malcolm Gladwell called “the gospel masterpiece” that Simon wrote for his partner, Art Garfunkel, to sing.

In many ways it became Garfunkel’s song.  Then it became Aretha Franklin’s song; her rendition connected it back to its gospel roots — what Simon called “the church version of it.”

That others became identified with the song caused some ambivalence about it for Simon.  Imagine that; you write one of the most successful songs of the century and you don’t really feel like it’s yours.  His introspection about that, his parents, Garfunkel, and other events and experiences of his life made the podcast series more revealing than many musical portraits.

Few artists have brought together strands of music from around the world like Simon.  One session — which produced “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” — incorporated Simon, Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones, a New Orleans jazz band, a Jamaican reggae guitar, and top R&B session musicians.  All united at a legendary studio at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Such mixing of sounds was evident in Simon’s famous pilgrimage to South Africa in the midst of the oppressive Aparatheid era there, resulting in his acclaimed album, Graceland.  Then off to Brazil for the inspiration for The Rhythm of the Saints.  And over the decades since, new sounds, new bridges to the music of others.  Now 80, he tried retiring for a time, but it didn’t last:  “There’s more coming; there’s more to do.”

Some of the most moving parts of the podcast are the shorter episodes featuring musicians talking about how songs by Simon affected them.  What a collection:  Sting (rock), Roseanne Cash (country/Americana), Aaron Lindsey (gospel), Renee Fleming (opera/classical), and Herbie Hancock (jazz).  Of Simon, Fleming said, “He’s not afraid of the complexities of life and love.”  Something to which we can all relate.

Simon says that when “the world is in a time like this” people ask him to sing “American Tune”:

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees

You can see why.  We have endured a stressful period, one made worse by the popular tendency to judge others based upon their political identity rather than their personal character.  There are troubled waters all around us and a distinct lack of bridges being built.

I happen to live with a champion bridge-builder, who always seems to be able to find a way to connect with everyone, young and old, rich and poor, red and blue.  When “darkness comes and pain is all around,” we need more of that.

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