Unlike a number of pop-music songwriters and songwriting teams who first came to international prominence in the 60’s (Bob Dylan, James Brown, Lennon-McCartney, Holland-Dozier-Holland), Paul Simon did his best work, by most critics’ estimation, in the 70’s and beyond. (You could make a good argument either way for Jagger-Richards.) Simon did, of course, write a number of great songs for Simon & Garfunkel, none bigger than the anthemic “Bridge over Troubled Water,” here rendered in one of S&G’s occasional reunion tours. (Garfunkel, his voice better suited to the ethereal nature of Simon’s melody, sang lead in the original, with Simon harmonizing on verse three; in this rendition, Simon takes a soulful verse two.)
But his solo work, beginning with 1972’s eponymous offering (his one solo album in the 60’s paled next to his writing for S&G), has generally garnered more acclaim. One of the big hits from that record, “Mother and Child Reunion,” ubiquitous on AM Top 40 radio (1360 WSAI, Cincinnati, the purveyor of the soundtrack of my 8-year-old self at the time and for the rest of my adolescence), originally conceived in Jamaica, presaged Simon’s eventual deep dive into what we now call world music, most notably and, at the time, controversially 1986’s Graceland, much of which was recorded in South Africa during the last vestiges of apartheid. Aided by a popular video with comedian Chevy Chase, “You Can Call Me Al” brought Simon a measure of hipness that helped counter the charges of cultural appropriation (although few were using that term at the time) and the outrage in some camps that Simon didn’t speak out more harshly against the racial segregation.
Simon is surely one of rock music’s deepest thinkers, and his section in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting provokes much thought. Hence, for the sake of space, I’ll let Simon’s words speak for themselves here; readers can provide their own application.
On finding the song instead of plotting it out:
I don’t consciously think about what a song should say. In fact, I consciously try not to think about what a song should say . . . [b]ecause I’m interested in what . . . I find, as opposed to . . . what I’m planting. I like to be the audience, too. I like to discover what it is that’s interesting to me. I like to discover it rather than plot it out.
On audience interpretation of his songs:
[T]here have been people who have interpreted some of my songs in ways that I hadn’t really thought of, but [they] were absolutely valid. All of the evidence was there and it was valid. And it was more interesting, sometimes, than some of the thoughts that I had, which just happened to be from my life. They had a more interesting thing happen in their life.
On the opening lines in a song:
[Y]ou want to have that first line that has a lot of options, to get you going. And the other thing to try to remember, especially if the song is long, you have plenty of time. You don’t have to . . . grab [the audience] by the throat with the first line.
Regarding possessing a solid knowledge of music theory:
It can’t hurt. It can help. Yeah, there are some problems that you solve by information that only a teacher can give you. You’ll have a much harder time solving those problems without that information. You might solve them, anyway. But why reinvent the wheel when the information is there?
When asked if that knowledge can get in the way of spontaneity:
[Yes,] I guess it can go the other way. But certainly in popular music and rock and roll, that’s not the problem. The problem is people don’t know enough.
When asked if patience is the key to overcoming writer’s block:
I think so. Patience, persistence . . . whichever. Sometimes you have to be very tenacious, and sometimes you have to give yourself a break and not beat yourself up and say, “Where is it? Where is it?” It’s not here, you know. It’ll be here when it gets here, and that’s it. There’s nothing more you can do.
On the randomness of visits from the creative muse, what believers would consider songwriting promptings of the Holy Spirit:
I had one period last summer where every day . . . I woke up exactly at 5:30 in the morning . . . with some song in my head. It was like, “Wow . . . this great.” Then I began to expect it. I woke up one day at 5:30 and there was nothing. That was the end. It didn’t happen again. Then big periods of time would go by when I would get nothing; then I’d get a bunch of lines on several different songs for a day or two or maybe three, and I’d think, “OK, here we go,” and then it stop[ped]. . . . But after a certain amount of time, you just get tired and you have to stop anyway and let whatever’s happening beneath the surface bubble around and wait for it to break through.
With this series, I hope to generate ideas for contemporary worship music songwriters. I recognize fully that some of what Simon shares here (and others will share throughout the series) won’t apply across the board for congregational singing, but I’m convinced enough will transfer to make the effort worth my while (and worth your read).
The Lord be with you!