By Ken Sharp
Paul Simon shares the back story behind writing the Simon & Garfunkel classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”:
Paul Simon: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is inspired by two different sources, both of which are not too far away from Elvis Presley. One is The Swan Silvertones, that was Reverend (Claude) Jeter, who I became friends with, and the other is a song on The Everly Brothers album, “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.” If I pointed them out to you you’d say, “I guess I hear it” but in some way both of those things fed into what became “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
The experience of writing it was unique. I was in my late 20s and I wrote it in a night. The music and lyrics came completely naturally. It was like a gift. Because I hadn’t experienced one with that intensity before I didn’t think anything of it other than, “That’s unusually good for me.” It was better than I usually write. Even in terms of the chord structure, I was using chords that I didn’t usually use, diminished chords and the length of the melody is 14 notes. That’s kind of a long phrase.
At the time I didn’t think it was about a spiritual experience. It would have been something I recognized later but I didn’t know it then. To write something that effortlessly and that quickly is a very unusual kind of inspiration. It’s happened to me a few times in my writing career and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is one of the notable examples of that. It was definitely one of those experiences that separated itself from the rest of my writing.
Then the odd thing that happened was I gave it to Artie (Garfunkel) to sing and transferred it over to (session pianist) Larry Knechtel to play. So in a strange way I felt disconnected from that song for a long, long time … decades. I hardly sang on the record; I sing a little bit of harmony on the last verse and I didn’t play guitar on it. I’ve reconnected with the song and have sung it many times now in different forms, piano versions. I played it with just me and an acoustic guitar. I’ve sung it with other people. I sang it with Artie where we swapped verses on the Simon & Garfunkel tour. I sang it with Luther Vandross and Jennifer Holliday once as a trio. I’ve sung it all over the place. But I still feel in some ways as if I almost didn’t write it. It was one of those songs that people describe it as coming through you.