An American Tune

By Lloyd Graff

I had the privilege to listen to a series of interviews with Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell over the past week, in an audio book called Miracle and Wonder. I found it absolutely riveting, Paul Simon talking about the early days of Simon & Garfunkel and then giving us great insights into the development and fruition of his brilliant musical career.

Simon is 80 years old now. His voice has lost a little of the energy of his youth, but his mind is sharp, his memory remarkable, and his ability to inform us through Malcolm Gladwell’s well-researched questions is magnetic. And he still makes great music.

Paul Simon grew up immersed in music. His father, Lou, was a well-schooled musician who cherished classical pieces and played bass in local jazz clubs in New York City at night. It was clear from the hours of interviews Gladwell shared that Paul and his father were close. Paul’s present on his thirteenth birthday (he did not call it a Bar Mitzvah present) was a guitar. By this time he was already singing on street corners with Art Garfunkel, who lived near Simon in the borough of Queens in New York. At the age of 13, recording under the name of Tom and Jerry, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel already had a hit record.

What I found remarkable was that Paul wrote both the melody and lyrics for all of his work. He has been a storyteller and composer for almost seven decades. The partnership with Art Garfunkel ended while they were both in their 30s and had already made hit after hit albums. Art apparently left the music rat race, but Paul was possessed by his creative muse and continues to work on his musical stories to this day.

He began work on his latest album, Seven Psalms, on the 25th anniversary of his father’s death in 2020. 

Gladwell teased out the history of Simon’s biggest hits like Bridge Over Troubled Water. The name of the song was derived from a line in a gospel song recorded by Claude Jeter in 1958. He went to New Orleans to talk to Jeter and eventually recorded it at the old studio that Jeter had used in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. 

Art Garfunkel sang the song almost solo in their last album together before they broke up. Supposedly, Paul Simon was jealous of the fame Garfunkel received from the song because it was his creation, even though he had insisted that Art sing it because he could give it the “white choirboy treatment.” Simon was the genius who wrote the song, directed all of its versions in various studios, selected the musicians, collaborated on the final sound editing, and sang harmony with Art in the final verse, but it was Art who got the applause and foot stomping at the end of concerts. Simon felt creative envy because he felt it was “his song.”

Gladwell’s interviews do not focus on Simon’s personal life, his marriages, or his home life growing up in Queens. Simon talks about his music, his creations, and the many influences that shaped them.

While I was curious about his life, I hungered to get a feel for his creative compulsion and desire to tell his stories with a combination of anger tempered by tenderness. The Boxer was partly inspired by the Bible but was written at a time when he felt he was being unfairly criticized. What I found fascinating was that the part of the song everyone remembers, the plaintive refrain, “lie la lie,” was inserted because Paul couldn’t think of a lyric that fit. The power of serendipity rises up in the song that he considers one of his best, as a filler when he thought his muse had deserted him.

I was moved almost to tears by these interviews because even though I don’t know that much about music, I could relate strongly to my own telling of stories coming from the many strands in my life. I’ve always wanted to write, but the material that I longed to weave together came from family traditions, sports, putting together deals, raising a family, and living a marriage. 

I wanted to clap when Simon and Gladwell ended with the music of American Tune, the song written by a child of Hungarian immigrants, which is about the promise of the melting pot of America and it falling short of its promise. Simon wrote it at the height of the Vietnam War. It was a time that left its mark on me. It made me think of a high school friend of mine who had died in an F-15 fighter in the skies above Laos.

Question: What is your favorite Paul Simon song?

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16 thoughts on “An American Tune

  1. Daniel

    “America”….”it took me 4 days to hitch-hike from Saginaw”.
    (I’m from Detroit).
    I hope you write a piece tomorrow about Jan 6th. I get the impression that many of your readers are Trump supporters, but I will be looking forward to reading your opinions on the insurrection.

     
  2. Lloyd+Graff

    Daniel,

    Thanks for asking about January 6th. I really have not thought about writing a piece about it, maybe because I think I and my audience do not need the acrimony it would cause. I will say this and leave it.
    I do not see it as an “insurrection”. It was unplanned except by a small band of lunatics who took advantage of Trump’s anger about losing the election he thought he won or should have won. Personally, I think Trump was in such a state of internal turmoil he was incapable of taking the precautions and actions necessary to quell what should have been just a large political demonstration. It will forever be a blackmark on what was actually a successful term despite continual Democratic Party harping. Because of Jan 6th he will lose in 2024 if he runs even to a pathetic Joe Biden. I think the Republicans will take over the House and Senate in 2022 unless the Trumpists sabotage themselves by allowing Trump to dictate the Party’s defense of Jan6th. It would be the Dems only chance of salvaging the election.

     
    1. Daniel

      Thanks for sharing your usual clear perspective .
      I hesitated to use the word insurrection until I read the Google definition as…”a violent uprising against an authority or government.”
      That seemed to sum it up for me.

       
  3. Gordy

    Definitely Mrs. Robinson, a great road trip song pretty much anybody can sing.

    I always loved his partners name. I once worked with an Englishman who called a nick in a mold a garf. I still smile thinking about him saying “She’s got a bit of a Garfunkel in her, eh?”

    Makes me want to go to Graceland just thinking about it……

     
  4. Jim Hanna

    My personal favorite is on of his lesser known songs, “My Little Town”. The images it brings to mind are so vivid it is like watching a movie in my imagination while listening to it.

     
  5. Bill Badura

    “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”
    Kodachrome is #1 for me with Graceland a close second.

     
  6. JERROLD L LEVINE

    My favorite is “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin Groovy).”
    It was a song of the late 60s, when so many things were going wrong in America. Here was a song of fun and whimsy that relieved some of the pain-without drugs or alcohol.

     
    1. Noah Graff

      Me and Julio is definitely a top one!

      Cecilia, the Boxer, Mrs. Robinson.

      I also like “Still Crazy after all these Years”

      There is a great part in the book where Simon goes on the Dick Cavett show, and talks about trying to figure out how to complete the song as he was currently writing it at the time.

       
  7. Peter+Frow

    We were explaining to my young grandson how ‘bar’ means
    ‘son-of,’ like Simon Bar Jonah. He said, “I get it, you mean like Simon Bar-Funkle”

     
    1. Noah

      Hi Peter!

      Do you have memories of the stir in South Africa when Paul Simon went to record with local musicians?

      There is a great part of this audio book where he tells the story in detail.

      I suggest you check it out.

      Happy New Year!

       

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