Simon & Garfunkel may have a reputation as the whitest music ever, but there’s not many places you can go in American popular music without finding an African-American somewhere nearby. In the this case, the untold story starts in 1964, when Simon & Garfunkel released their debut album, only to see it vanish utterly without a trace. Dejected, the duo broke up, and Simon decamped for England.
But Tom Wilson, a well-respected black producer previously best known for his work with Bob Dylan, hadn’t given up yet. Without asking either of the musicians, he remixed his favorite of their tracks from a simple acoustic folk song into the then-trendy folk rock, with the help of some electric guitars, a rock drummer and a booming bassline. The reworked song rocketed to #1 on the Billboard Charts, the group hastily reformed, and the rest is history.
While the audience may have needed some help to appreciate it, however, the song they almost missed is one of the masterpieces of American pop poetry, and a shining example of reconstructivist art in popular music.
Here’s how it meets the four criteria:
- A Nod to Artifice: The Sound of Silence is explicitly introduced as a dream.
- A Classic Structure: Eschewing the pop standard structure of verse-chorus-bridge, the song has an older folk-music structure of repeated verses with a simple, one-line refrain.
- Transcontextual and/or Iconic Elements: Although a lot of what appealed to the audience was undoubtedly the Byrds and Dylan-like juxtaposition of a pretty, folky song, and a rockin’ backing track, there are also transcontextual and iconic elements in the lyrics, which transition swiftly from the olde English feel of cobblestone streets to the modern technology of neon signs, the latter doubling as the iconic “neon god.”
- Moments of Genuine Emotion or Significance: The most affecting words in the song are unquestionably the pure poetry of the last few lines: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, in tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence.” Part of what lends them their power is the subtle social criticism beneath the surface. Simon is instructing us to pay closer attention to the marginalized and the ignored of society, and to give their forms of expression greater respect and attention. In this, he is in some ways in conversation with Bob Dylan, whose song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” he covers on the same album where “The Sound of Silence” debuted. Where Dylan instructs “writers and critics who prophesize with your pen,” as well as mothers, fathers, senators and congressmen, to reserve judgment on their children and the future they are bringing forth, Simon is telling the same people that the future has already been written down for them in the last places they would think to look. Simon’s respect for graffiti also prefigures (or prophesies, if you will) the forthcoming adoption of graffiti, and its intrinsic social criticism, as the central visual expression of the hip-hop cultural movement (and its subsequent acceptance as a mainstream, but still socially critical, art form in more recent times).Note: Some of this essay was previously included in my post on the topic on Stack Exchange.