The Life of a Song: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’

The hit single was written by Paul Simon in Los Angeles in 1969 and partly inspired by a gospel band
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in 1966 © Rex Features

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Two years ago, the British estate agent Savills advertised a property for sale, “a picturesque thatched house” in the Devon village of Bickleigh. The listing stated: “The pretty gardens extend along the river bank to Bickleigh Bridge, beside which the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is said to have been written.”

The Bickleigh Bridge story is an endearing and enduring tale — but it is entirely false. It’s claimed that the song emerged from Paul Simon’s stay at the nearby Fisherman’s Cot inn when the river flooded in the 1960s. And it’s true that Simon lived for a while in that part of Devon in the 1960s, and that he may even have stayed in Bickleigh. But in 2002, when Art Garfunkel was asked on BBC Radio Devon if the Bickleigh Bridge story was true, he replied, “No, I’m sorry. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is a gospel phrase which Paul took from a gospel group.”

The song was written by Simon in the rather less bucolic location of Los Angeles in 1969, partly inspired, as Garfunkel said, by the 1940s-1950s gospel band The Swan Silvertones. During the recording sessions for what was to become Simon and Garfunkel’s last album, tensions between the two men were running high, and Garfunkel was often away in Mexico filming Catch-22 — absences that prompted Simon to write “The Only Living Boy in New York”.

The sessions featured three musicians known as the “Hollywood Golden Trio”: bassist Joe Osborn, who gave the song its distinctive twin bass guitars; drummer Hal Blaine; and keyboardist Larry Knechtel. The song had been written on guitar in a different key and was arranged for piano by Jimmy Haskell.

To begin with, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was a modest affair with two verses, but Garfunkel thought that it had the potential to become something bigger; thus Simon came up with the third “Sail on, silver girl” verse. The suggestion that this is a reference to drugs and needles is another myth: it was actually inspired by the premature grey hairs that had appeared on the head of Simon’s then wife, Peggy Harper.

Placing the drums in an echo chamber and adding strings, producer Roy Halee transformed Simon’s modest hymn into a grand, stirring Phil Spector-ish number. But who was to sing it? When it came to the vocals, which were recorded in New York, Simon thought it suited Garfunkel’s voice; Garfunkel thought it was better suited to Simon’s falsetto. Eventually Garfunkel relented and sang it. Simon has since said that he regretted “giving the song away”, not least because when they performed it live, Simon had to sit on the sidelines and watch Garfunkel lapping up the applause. It’s ironic that a hymn to friendship and sacrifice turned out to be a source of resentment and jealousy between two old high-school friends.

“Bridge” became one of the biggest pop songs of 1970, charting at number one on both sides of the Atlantic, while the album of the same title became a fixture at the top of the charts. Hundreds of versions followed (the Second Hand Songs website has counted 233). Elvis Presley included a grandiose, somewhat plodding live version on his 1970 album Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. Jamaican singer Jimmy London reggaefied it. Willie Nelson countrified it with his customary elegance.

Both Simon and Garfunkel have continued to sing it; last year Simon and Sting toured together, with Sting giving the song a powerful rendition. Not all versions were as respectful of the original: in 2008 Simon sued the Rhythm Watch Co of Japan for unlicensed use of the song on its “Grand Nostalgia” musical clock, settling out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Perhaps the finest version was released in 1971 by Roberta Flack, whose arrangement took the song back to its roots with a gospelly, three-four swing. Over seven minutes, Flack inhabits the song (like many singers, she changes “water” to “waters”) in a stunning vocal performance, with the Newark Boys Chorus adding an ethereal glow. It’s music to ease a troubled mind.

For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song

Photograph: Rex Features

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