Anatomy of a Classic Song
It’s a rare phenomenon when any song—even a huge hit—has such emotional power that it affects people worldwide for generations. Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” accomplished that feat, sending ripples around the globe that are still present today. Within a month of its release in January 1970, it sailed to the top of the Billboard charts and stayed there for six weeks. The album of the same name topped the charts for 10 weeks in the United States, and 33 weeks in the United Kingdom. To date the album has sold 25 million copies around the world, with 5 million purchases in America alone. In February 1971, it also won four Grammy Awards.
In the intervening four-plus decades, more than 200 artists of various styles and ages have recorded or given high-profile performances of “Bridge.” Singers covering it early on included Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Whitney Houston, and dozens more. More recent renditions by younger artists include those by David Archuleta, Josh Groban, Clay Aiken, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Leona Lewis, and Charlotte Church, to name a few. Artists from the United States to Sweden to China have performed it. The December 9, 2004, issue of Rolling Stone which profiled the 500 greatest songs of all time, ranked “Bridge” at number 48.
Typically, a hit song involves extramusical factors that can’t be predicted by label execs or radio promoters that contribute to a song becoming such a massive success. Occasionally cultural resonances and societal issues combine with the effect of a magical marriage between music and lyric to deeply touch millions.
When “Bridge” hit the airwaves, American society was in turmoil over the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia, which was spilling out in protests onto America’s streets. The quiet assurance of Simon’s lyrics delivered in Garfunkel’s sometimes gentle, sometimes soaring, tenor to the accompaniment of Larry Knechtel’s gospel-infused piano also subtly connected to the period’s racial struggles and to the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. The turbulent decade of the sixties that had witnessed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy had just come to a close. For millions, “Bridge” served as a musical emollient for life’s public and personal struggles.