The Songwriting of Paul Simon: An Analysis of Four Songs

This piece was written in 2018 as a part of my studies at Bath Spa University.


Whilst known initially as part of folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon’s initial, enduring love was for the sound of rock and roll (Gilbert, 1973). Simon considers this sound to be “the essential vocabulary” of his songwriting (Simon, 1984), feeling that it gives his music “emotional validity” (Music Vault, 2014). Simon has also cited doo-wop groups and the gospel quartets preceding them as constant influences (Gilbert, 1973). Simon’s juvenilia display these influences in their most unadulterated form. For example, Simon’s first minor hit, 1957’s ‘Hey Schoolgirl’ (Tom & Jerry, 1957), is a light rock and roll tale of a youthful romance, channeling the harmonies of the Everly Brothers, themselves a huge influence on Simon’s work (Pareles, 2014, Leigh, 2016 & Fresh Air, 2000).

Throughout his career, Simon has displayed “rigorous eclecticism” (Ingham, 2000), and a determination to vary his musical style at regular intervals. The young Simon formed his own publishing company before having any hits, a diligence to business commensurate with his approach to songcraft (Leigh, 2016).

This careerist approach to music puts Simon in stark contrast with many of the artists from the folk community that he later engaged with. By 1963, Simon had decided that he wanted to “say something” in his songs (Griffiths, 1966), and feeling that rock and roll was “in one of its lulls” (Simon, 1984), he gravitated towards the burgeoning folk revival scene of Greenwich Village. The “mature” writing style (Fresh Air, 2000) of artists from this scene, including the young Bob Dylan (Music Vault, 2014) had a heavy impact on the content of Simon’s lyrics.

Simon’s engagement with the folk revival scene has been characterised as “second-generation” (Laing, 1974), influenced mainly by his contemporaries rather than their influences; Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger among others (Laing, 1974 & Leigh, 2016). Simon felt that the folk framework gave him more freedom than the “confined parameters” of the pop music being produced by the Brill Building songwriters during this period (Laing, 1974), and his involvement with folk music seems a carefully considered step in his career.

1.    The Sound of Silence

One of the earliest folk-influenced songs written by Simon is one of his most popular and enduring; ‘The Sound of Silence’. Whilst Simon released three versions of the song (Simon & Garfunkel, 1964 & 1966a, Simon, 1965), it was the third, and most heavily orchestrated, that became a hit. The analysis provided applies to this version. The song had a difficult start; Dave van Ronk has described the song as “a running joke” in the folk scene (Leigh, 2016), its poor reception linked with the perception of Simon as an interloper, an inauthentic rock and roll singer without folk pedigree (Leigh, 2016).

The song addresses the difficulty that people find in communication, a theme that clearly engaged Simon in the mid-1960s, and one he revisited for the song ‘The Dangling Conversation’, from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (Simon & Garfunkel, 1966b), albeit “on a personal level rather than a societal level” (Delehant, 1976a). Simon has highlighted the impact that the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the “escalation of the war in Vietnam” had on American society (Schwartz, 1984), stating that the “mood of the time” was “alienation”, a theme very clearly represented in ‘The Sound of Silence’ (Schwartz, 1984). This mood ensured that the song resonated with the disillusioned, disenfranchised countercultural youth of America growing up alongside the Civil Rights Movement and being “awoken” politically and culturally (Laing, 1974).

Structurally, the song is simplistic, adopting an AAAAA strophic form, with five verses, each largely the same melodically, but varying lyrically. The title of the song appears at the end of each verse as a refrain, a technique used regularly by Simon (Leigh, 2016). This technique continually re-establishes the central theme of the song, and allows Simon to re-contextualise his title in each verse, providing depth and variation.

Simon has repeatedly discussed the importance he places on the first line of his songs, stating, “I’ve always believed that you need a truthful first line to kick you off into a song. You have to say something emotionally true before you can let your imagination wander” (Schwartz, 1984). The first couplet of ‘The Sound of Silence’ is one of Simon’s most famous: “Hello Darkness my old friend/I’ve come to talk with you again,” anthropomorphising the concept of ‘darkness’ and presenting it as a source of comfort and as a confidant. ‘Silence’ is also anthropomorphised, but by contrast is portrayed as something to fear: “Silence like a cancer grows.” Compared to the simplicity of his early works, such as ‘Hey Schoolgirl’, ‘The Sound of Silence’ shows a Simon as significantly developed writer, employing allusion and rhetorical devices. The third verse contains an effective example of Simon’s rhetoric: “People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening.” Taken individually, each line is powerful, with the subtle but important distinction between the two actions in each line causing the listener to consider human behaviour. When combined, the parallel syntax of the two lines amplifies the effect.

The song acts primarily as an allegory for the dangers of apathy. From a first person perspective, the narrator guides the listener through a vision he has had, in which hoards of people stand, uncommunicative, transfixed by a neon light. As the song warns against the dangers of non-communication, it is appropriate that the song takes the form of a conversation (Another Paul, 2009). Religious imagery runs throughout the song, with the “halo of a street lamp” and “the words of the prophets”. The neon light is a “neon god”, unquestioningly followed by the masses. The response to this “neon god” can be seen to act as an analogy for how television altered social behavior in the 1950s and 60s, and can be transposed to work for modern society, with television substituted for social media.

The song is performed in Gb major, and is fairly simple harmonically, relying solely on the I, IV, V and vi chords. The influence of the Everly Brothers’ close vocal harmonies is still apparent, but the harmonies on ‘The Sound of Silence’ vary much more than the diatonic thirds used on ‘Hey Schoolgirl’.

Each lyrical couplet performs a separate role; the first acts as exposition, the second develops the scene, whilst the third “presents the climactic thought of the verse” (Bennighof 2007:9). These roles are reinforced by the melodic contour of each couplet. The first couplet features a melody in the Aeolian mode over the chords Ebm-Db-Ebm. The “purity of the modal language” (Bennighof 2007:10) places the melody in the folk tradition, similar to the usage of the Dorian mode in ‘Scarborough Fair’ (Simon & Garfunkel, 1966b).

This first couplet provides a dark contrast to the major tonality used in the next two couplets. The second couplet is made up of two identical melodies, appropriate considering the parallel syntax used lyrically at this point in two of the verses, whilst the melodic peak occurs in the climactic third couplet, with Garfunkel’s vocal hitting the highest note in the song, a Gb, the tonic. Finally, the refrain returns to the modal harmony of the first couplet, descending to lead into the next verse, a technique that Bennighof refers to as “quite classically conceived” (2007:10).

2.    Still Crazy After All These Years

Simon and Garfunkel split in 1970, with Simon going on to release several solo albums, including 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years (Simon, 1975). The title song is markedly different stylistically from Simon’s previous material, using a heavily jazz-influenced sound, exemplified by the Rhodes piano and complex harmonic elements of the track. Simon discussed this period of his work at length in an interview with Playboy: “I felt I was defining a real identity” (Schwartz, 1984). He describes this identity as “New York rock, jazz influenced, with a certain kind of lyrical sophistication” (ibid.). The increased harmonic complexity of ‘Still Crazy’ is a direct result of Simon’s efforts to improve his compositional skills, studying harmony and orchestration with bass player Chuck Israels (Zollo, 1990a). Simon also studied the music of Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim (ibid.), observing that his melodies often used every note of the chromatic scale. Simon felt that replicating this would introduce greater variation to his work, and, although the average listener would not be consciously aware of these variations, it would reset the listener’s expectations, enabling his verses to sound fresh when revisited later in the song (Simon, 1974). Simon almost achieves the inclusion of each chromatic note on ‘Still Crazy’, omitting only the F natural.

Thematically, this work is more mature. The song discusses a rendezvous with his “old lover” with an emotional detachment not present in his earlier work. The song depicts a general ennui, contradicted by the use of “crazy” in the title, and comes from a period in Simon’s life when he was experiencing such listlessness, shortly after the failure of his first marriage (Schwartz, 1984). Woffinden notes the “intensely personal” nature of Simon’s work during this period, attributing it to an increased freedom, afforded by the dissolution of Simon and Garfunkel (Woffinden, 1975). The first line is plain and factual, sticking with Simon’s method of “simple and true” first lines (Zollo, 1990a). The title is contradicted consistently throughout the lyrics, which portray resignation rather than insanity, and a narrator that may be “still crazy”, but also “ain’t no fool”. The lyric could quite easily be the monologue of a neurotic New Yorker on his psychiatrist’s couch, and the constant claims that the narrator is “still crazy” seem an effort on the character’s part to appear more interesting.

This feigned instability is aided by the regular shifts in harmony present throughout, primarily in the bridge, which rapidly modulates through E major, F sharp major and E minor before returning to the home key of G major. The song lacks a chorus, using an AABA form with the title as a refrain at the end of the verse. Simon continuously subverts the listener’s expectation by constantly re-contextualising this refrain. Whilst in ‘The Sound of Silence’, Simon re-contextualises the title solely by changing the preceding lyrics, here the harmony changes each time. The final syllable of the first verse lands on the v chord (C minor), whilst the end of the second verse is supported by an I9 (G9) chord, with neither properly resolving, “indicating that there is more to the story” (Bennighof, 2007:70). Simon also introduces an unexpected key change partway through the final verse, shifting up a tone from G major to A, and providing a final recontextualisation of the refrain (Zollo, 1990a). Bennighof refers to the mood set by the key change as being one of “demented triumph” (2007:71). Notably, this is the only instance of the ‘Still Crazy’ title that resolves to the tonic triad, implying the narrator’s eventual acceptance of his solitude.

3.    Hearts and Bones

Shortly after the release of Still Crazy, Simon’s identity as member of the New York intelligentsia was reinforced when he was cast in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). Simon and Allen have regularly shared subject material – neuroses, New York life (Leigh, 2016), and the minutiae of relationships – as well as an intelligence and perspicacity that, unlike many other rock artists, Simon has not been at pains to hide (Gillett, 1973; Laing, 1974 and Schwartz, 1984). Unlike Allen however, Simon’s Jewish heritage is not often referenced in his material. Simon himself has noted that “you don’t hear the word ‘Jews’ come up too much in songs outside of the state of Israel” (Simon, 1984), and it is perhaps this that makes the opening couplet from ‘Hearts and Bones’ (Simon, 1983) so striking: “One and one-half wandering Jews/Free to wander wherever they choose.” Continuing with Simon’s tradition of strong opening lines, the listener is introduced to two protagonists, through syntax seemingly appropriated from an old joke (Zollo, 2015). There is a direct reference to Simon’s personal life here; he is the Jew mentioned, whilst his partner at the time, actress Carrie Fisher, was half-Jewish (Zollo, 1990a). The lyric also references the mythical ‘Wandering Jew’, cursed to traverse the earth until the Second Coming. The remainder of the verse uses Christian imagery, creating an effective juxtaposition of the two religions. The protagonists are walking through the “Sangre de Cristo” or “Blood of Christ” mountains. Simon translates “Sangre de Cristo” within the lyric, emphasizing the contrast between the wanderers and their culturally alien environment. The chosen mountain range hints at sacrifice and martyrdom (Another Paul, 2011c), precipitating the ultimate demise of the relationship.

The autobiographical references in ‘Hearts and Bones’ demonstrate an openness and honesty that had gradually grown in Simon’s songs. The song is “blisteringly honest” (Leigh, 2016) about the travails of love, tracing, as Simon calls it in the lyrics, “the arc of a love affair”, from its passionate outset to its practical conclusion. The song is a journey, emotionally and literally, with geography used as a means to both bring the lovers together, and to ultimately separate them – they “returned to their natural coasts”. Simon’s choice to discuss both ‘hearts’ and ‘bones’ adds a physicality and tangibility to the regular cliché of the heart serving as an analogue for love. This added physicality compliments the implicit sexuality of lines such as “love like lightning, shaking till it moans”. The final verse addresses the indelible impact the lovers have left on each other; “remain[ing] intertwined even after their separation” (Beviglia, 2012). The song again uses an AABA form, with Simon using two of his regular techniques: the title as a refrain at the end of each verse and an integral, harmonically distinct bridge to prepare listeners for the final verse.

‘Hearts and Bones’ retains the extended harmonic palette present in ‘Still Crazy’, but uses its more exotic flavours – diminished and extended chords – sparingly. Appropriately, considering the geographical setting, Mexico, the track also incorporates Latin influences, most noticeably the Latin percussion performed by Airto Moreira – a Brazilian percussionist who had previously worked with Antônio Carlos Jobim. Less obviously, the guitar figure in the introduction moves in parallel sixths, a common harmony in Latin music (Bennighof, 2007:99). The delicate accompaniment is compellingly incongruous with the heavy lyrical content; whilst occasional harmonic twists help deliver the intended lyrical message. For example, during the solemn explanation, “that’s not the way the world is baby, ” the harmony undergoes a rapid shift to the minor tonality to mirror the change of mood (Bennighof, 2007:99). Melodically, Simon makes good use of sequential movement, with a descending figure of three lines in the second part of each verse, each naturally leading on to the next by never resolving to the tonic and channeling the “sense of almost aimless wandering” present in the text (2007:99).

4.    Graceland

Simon has said that he does not believe Graceland (Simon, 1986b) would have been made if Hearts and Bones had been successful (Zollo, 1990b). Simon felt that the songs on Hearts and Bones had been let down by the production, so he decided to reverse his writing process, and produce the record before writing the songs (Zollo, 1990b). Fascinated by a cassette of South African jive music, mbaqanga, that he had been given, Simon insisted on a costly expedition to South Africa to work with authentic musicians of the style (PaulSimonVEVO, 2012). Critics have argued that, by doing so, Simon broke the cultural boycott of South Africa in place at the time due to the apartheid system (Sinker, 1987). Simon, for his part, argues that his trip to South Africa had no political intention (Tannenbaum, 1986) and there is very little lyrical material on the album that could be considered political comment in any way.

Whilst musically, Graceland relies heavily on the African influence, lyrically it is archetypal Simon, full of “New Yorkian preoccupations” (Reel, 1986), only more conversational and fractured narratively than his previous albums (Sutcliffe, 2011). At times the lyrics border on free association (Thomson, 2010), for example, Simon’s anecdote about the “girl from New York City, who calls herself the human trampoline”, part way through the title track. Again we see the centrality of New York to Simon’s persona, even when making cultural excursions such as Graceland. Simon felt that by cross-pollinating African and American cultural elements, he could appeal to audiences on both continents (Zollo, 1990b).

For the title track, Simon stripped back his recording from South Africa so that only the drum part remained (Thomson, 2010), a “travelling rhythm” that reminded him of Johnny Cash’s material on Sun Records (Simon, 2012). Simon had identified a simplicity and verve in mbaqanga that reminded him of the rock and roll sounds that had enraptured him during his youth (Smith, 1987). Simon asked his band to augment the drums with their approximation of American country music (Simon, 2012), later adding Nigerian pedal steel player Demola Adepoju to play lines idiomatic to country music and further blur the lines between the African and American sounds. The final product echoes the minimalistic production and arrangement style of the Sun Records material (Simon, 2012).

Perhaps subconsciously inspired by the sounds he had developed, Simon had a solitary lyric for the song: “Graceland”, Elvis Presley’s famous Memphis mansion (Simon, 2012). Seeing no connection between Graceland and the South African theme, Simon was initially dismissive of the lyric but eventually embraced the title and took a trip to Graceland with his son. This trip forms the basis for the lyric.

‘Graceland’ is a direct continuation of the story from ‘Hearts and Bones’ (Zollo, 1990a), with the narrator seeking solace after another failed relationship. Written in the first person, Simon references both his first wife – “the child of my first marriage” – and his second, “she comes back to tell me she’s gone”. The pain of losing the latter feels far fresher (Charlesworth, 1997) and the narrator abruptly switches between exasperation, “as if I didn’t know my own bed”, and longing, “as if I never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead”. Simon also addresses the public nature of breakups: “losing love is like a window in your heart” (Another Paul, 2012), a line that Simon has said “freed him” (Smith, 1987). In the song, Graceland acts as both a physical destination and a metaphor for redemption (Tannenbaum, 1986), with the story reading like a pilgrimage to both “the palace of the rock ‘n’ roll Sun King” and “a state of mind that borders on heaven” (O’Brien, 1986). Many elements give the song the impression of being Simon’s love letter to rock and roll, the direct musical quote of Elvis’ ‘Mystery Train’ at the start, Simon’s “favorite record” (DeCurtis, 2000), and the inclusion of Simon’s early idols, the Everly Brothers, on backing vocals.

“The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar” is another of Simon’s strong opening lines, not only geographically defining the lyric, but also invoking the musical culture of the Deep South; of the Delta blues and the National resonator guitars often used in the style. Simon also refers to the area being “the cradle of the Civil War”, alluding not only to the historical war, but also the “domestic strife” he has recently experienced (Bennighof, 2007:112), and providing a “nod to the racial injustices that are at the root of U.S. history”, as well as to those occurring in South Africa at the time (Glitz, 2012). The song rapidly switches tenses and this confused temporality is reflective of the narrator’s emotional disorientation at this stage in his life.

Harmonically, the song relies mainly on the I, IV, V and vi chords – dramatically simpler than the harmony present in songs such as ‘Still Crazy’, and purposefully so, with Simon believing that the dominant rhythms of the track necessitated simpler harmony (Zollo, 1990b). This is partly carried over from the African music that inspired Simon, predominantly built on the I, IV and V chords (Simon, 2012). There are a number of features distinctly idiomatic to the blues or rock and roll; the modal interchange in the chorus that sees the bVII chord, D major, introduced is a good example. Unlike much of Simon’s early work, the melody varies vastly between verses, but interestingly, also between choruses. The constant changes are representative of the journey taken in the song, “underscor[ing] the narrator’s pilgrimage” (Bennighof, 2007:112).


Fascinated by the process and product of songwriting, Simon has experimented with a multitude of techniques, inspirations and forms, ultimately settling on a “distinctly synthetic approach to composition” (Bennighof, 2007:164); selecting musical, textual and cultural elements that interest him and pursuing them to their natural conclusion. This is exemplified by his work on Graceland, and stems from Simon’s “naturally analytical inclination” (Bennighof, 2007:164). Simon has consistently shown that he is conscious of his changing identity as a writer (Zollo, 1990b) and this awareness has been the impetus behind the huge variation between the four tracks analysed here.



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