In December of 1965, Joey Morrison and I went to the Ann Arbor Public Library to listen to music. In those days, you could plug a set of headphones into a record player and pick one of the hundreds of vinyl albums from the library’s eclectic collection and listen to your heart’s content.
On that winter evening, I was in search of “The Sound of Silence”. It was number one on the WKNR Music Guide and the lyrics were becoming an anthem for our growing awareness of what we felt was wrong with the world.
I found the track on the “Wednesday Morning, 3am” LP and dropped the needle to drink it in.
I was still seven years away from learning how to discern the nuances of a composition in Vic Bordo’s Music Theory class. All I knew was that it felt empty. The lyrics were the same but the driving intensity wasn’t there.
In the car on the way home, we heard the version that was the talk of the town. This one had a pair of electric guitars and drums. I wondered what happened to transform “The Sound of Silence” from a forgettable acoustic atrocity, into a smash hit that brought folk music into the mainstream.
“It’s not a sophisticated thought,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross, “but a thought that I gathered from some college reading material. It wasn’t something that I was experiencing at some deep, profound level – nobody’s listening to me, nobody’s listening to anyone – it was a post-adolescent angst, but it had some level of truth to it, and it resonated with millions of people. Largely because it had a simple and singable melody.”
The tune would not have seen the light of day had Simon not quit his job as a song pitcher and taken his words and music directly to Tom Wilson at Columbia Records. Even then, Wilson’s interest wasn’t in Simon as a performer. He was looking for material for The Pilgrims, a Christian Rock band that he hoped he could take mainstream.
Simon brought his friend, Art Garfunkel to perform the “The Sounds of Silence”, as the tune was then titled, before a group of Columbia executives. It was the first significant forward step for duo, formerly known as “Tom and Jerry”, since their moderate Everly Brothers knock-off, “Hey Schoolgirl” peaked at number 49 in 1957.
The audition got Simon and Garfunkel a contract and “Wednesday Morning, 3am” was the first collection to test the waters.
It got little attention.
Art Garfunkel went back to college and Paul Simon went to England, both convinced that their partnership was at an end.
And then, Tom Wilson got an idea. Another Columbia artist he had helped produce had broken out with an electrified folk tune that summer. In spite of the label’s cool reception to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, a record company promotion man took a demo to a New York nightclub. From the moment the disc jockey put it on the turntable, the dance floor was filled to capacity, demanding so many replays that the grooves literals wore out.
With Dylan’s new sound gaining traction, Wilson brought bassist Joe Mack, drummer Buddy Salzman and guitarists Vinnie Bell and Al Gorgoni into the studio. Without Simon and Garfunkel’s knowledge they overdubbed an electrified backing track for “The Sound of Silence”.
Despite Simon’s self-deprecation, the lyrics of “The Sound of Silence” were the right poetry for the right audience at the right time. What Simon described as simple adolescent angst was interpreted in the context of a time when the propaganda of commercial television juxtaposed against distrust of a government that was getting us more deeply involved in an undeclared war in Southeast Asia.
Four years after its introduction, the birth control pill was at the center of the second wave of the feminist movement. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was a best seller. Gender inequality was articulated in President Kennedy‘s Commission on the Status of Women. President Johnson had outlined his dream of a “Great Society” in a commencement address at the University of Michigan the year before the reconstituted “Sound of Silence” hit the airwaves. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was bringing Civil Rights to the forefront of our consciousness.
We were beginning to question convention. Long simmering social issues were beginning to boil. Simon’s lyrics warning us to be wary of what we were being sold appealed to every point of view.
Such was the durability of “The Sound of Silence”, that it found its way into the soundtrack of director Mike Nichols‘ film, “The Graduate” a year later. The film inspired a lyrical change to another Simon composition. Originally titled “Mrs. Roosevelt,” “Mrs. Robinson” became the duo’s second number one. It’s been covered by dozens of acts over the years, most notably fascinating renditions by Disturbed and Pentatonix.
“The Sound of Silence” still resonates today. Many of us who are old enough to remember its initial iteration hear echos of Paul Simon’s admonitions as we listen to the bloviations of today’s politicians. I had Simon’s lyrics on my mind when I ran into an age mate at a rally for women’s rights at the Michigan State Capitol a few years back.
We were both holding old school 60s protest signs when we bumped into one another. “I thought we fought this battle forty years ago,” my friend said.
As the seasons pass we eventually realize that the rights we enjoy are always at risk. Perhaps, Dr. King had Paul Simon in mind when he warned us, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Paul Simon may have composed his first major hit without giving it much thought. But whatever your political position, “The Sound of Silence” remains an important reminder to stand up for your beliefs, to challenge paradigms and to fight for the ideals on which our delicate experiment in democracy is based.