For Christmas 1999 my parents bought me, a sixth grader at the time, the new Best of Simon and Garfunkel album released by Columbia. I was already familiar with about half the songs, which played frequently on Oldies 100.7, the station to which my family’s radios were always tuned. (Even so, who hasn’t heard “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”?) The other half I taught myself through repeated listening on my boombox, following along with the lyrics printed in the CD insert. I’m grateful to my parents for educating my musical tastes beyond Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.
It wasn’t until after college that I ventured into the duo’s lesser-known discography. That’s when I discovered their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. “Exciting new sounds in the folk tradition,” the cover boasts. Released October 18, 1964, to lukewarm reviews, it was a commercial failure, selling only one thousand copies in the first eight months. Even today critics say it pales in comparison to their subsequent work. But I actually love this album—it’s one of my favorites not only of theirs but of any artist. I was pleasantly surprised to find it chock-full of biblical references, many of them explicit.
Its seven covers include an upbeat gospel song, a Negro spiritual, a Renaissance canticle (adapted), a visionary antiwar song, an atom-bomb lament, a traditional Scottish ballad, and the Dylan classic “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” The five originals include a fable about loving the immigrant, an elegy for a civil rights martyr, a farewell song (in the voice of a criminal), and two poetic expressions of urban loneliness.
1. You Can Tell the World. [Listen] A joyous blast of praise, this traditional black gospel song begins,
Well, you can tell the world about this
You can tell the nation about that
Tell ’em what the master has done
Tell ’em that the gospel has come
Tell ’em that the victory’s been won
He brought joy, joy, joy, joy, joy, joy
Into my heart
It then goes on to extol Jesus’s preaching and testify to the personal revelation God gives.
As is often the case with traditional songs, the tune and lyrics have been adapted over time. Other versions have been recorded under names like “He Brought Joy to My Soul” (Ethel Waters, 1926); “I Can Tell the World About This” (Morris Brown Quartet, 1940); “Joy, Joy to My Soul” (The Soul Stirrers, feat. Sam Cooke, 1951); “Tell the World” (The Tarriers, 1960); and so on. In 1961 Bob Gibson recorded an arrangement he and Hamilton Camp had written, which is what Simon and Garfunkel credit in their liner notes. This was my first time hearing this song that has apparently been making the rounds for decades, and I enjoyed listening to what other artists have done with it. To view a partial list of recordings, click here.
2. Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream. [Listen] In this song, written by Ed McCurdy in 1950, the speaker dreams about a treaty being signed by all nations to put an end to war. As the signers hold hands and pray together, the people toss their guns, swords, and uniforms into trash heaps, for they have been rendered obsolete. A call for world peace, “Last Night” has been recorded in seventy-six languages, and the Peace Corps adopted it as their official theme song in 1980. It’s a little too singsongy for my tastes, but I support the dream 100 percent!
3. Bleecker Street. [Listen] The first original song on the album, “Bleecker Street,” typifies the melodic grace and themes (e.g., alienation, discontent) that Paul would come to be known and praised for. Its title is the name of one of the famous avenues of Greenwich Village, a haven for artists of all types and a major hub of 1960s countercultures. But Paul doesn’t characterize it as a place of salvation. Quite the opposite: he says, “It’s a long road to Canaan / On Bleecker Street.”
It sounds to me like Paul (assuming he’s the speaker here) is voicing his disillusionment and trying to come to grips with the fact that humanity is innately flawed. For all the lofty ideals born and preached there, the Village is no paradise. People were coming there looking to receive and help effect freedom, enlightenment, beauty, and change, but loneliness and suffering persists. Fog covers Bleecker “like a shroud,” blanketing homeless men asleep in alleys and “hid[ing] the shepherd from the sheep.” (Most residents were so self-involved, they couldn’t see God.) There’s a spiritual emptiness, and a loss of real human connection (“I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand”).
The poets write, and “holy, holy is their sacrament” (a reference, perhaps, to Allen Ginsberg). But their rhymes are “crooked” (dishonest?), and they sell them for thirty dollars’ rent, a reference to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus.
And yet on the other side of this moral desert, “a church bell softly chime[s],” beckoning seekers to a higher and truer hope, to a promise that will not fail. Its “melody sustain[s]” the human spirit like nothing else can.
4. Sparrow. [Listen] This sung fable, written by Paul Simon, tells the story of a little sparrow “who’s traveled far and cries for rest.” She seeks love but is rebuffed at every turn. The oak tree denies her shelter in his branches, not wanting to lend his strength to such an unworthy creature; for fear of derision from her peers, the beautiful swan declines to speak a kindly word; and the self-interested wheat refuses the sparrow food, preferring to keep all his resources to himself: “I would if I could but I cannot I know. / I need all my grain to prosper and grow.”
After a threefold “Who will love a little Sparrow?” Earth speaks up in the affirmative. The little sparrow has died, and Earth will write her eulogy: “For all I’ve created returns unto me, / From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be”—a close paraphrase of Genesis 3:19.
“Sparrow” condemns a lack of hospitality and compassion, warning that the consequences can be fatal. In a letter to Paul in response to reading these lyrics for the first time, Art wrote, “The clarity of the song’s structure is matched by the simplicity of its subject. The song is asking: ‘Who will love?’” Who will give of themselves to those in need? Given the vast number of refugees seeking food, shelter, and advocacy in our present era, I can’t believe that this song has not been more widely shared across social networks.
Appropriately, its Spanish-guitar melody conveys a sense of urgency, of frantic flight.
5. Benedictus. [Listen] Track five is a liturgical acclamation in Latin: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini (“Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord”)—its entire 2:38 runtime consists of harmonic weavings of that one line in two voices. The Benedictus is the second part of the Sanctus, a Christian hymn that in the Roman rite prefaces the Eucharistic Prayer. The “he” refers to Christ, as the line originates in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem the week of his death (Matthew 21:9; cf. Mark 11:9; Luke 19:38).
Simon and Garfunkel adapted their “Benedictus” from Orlande de Lassus’s Missa octavi toni “Benedictus,” a two-part a capella motet composed in the sixteenth century. A feature of the genre, which the duo preserves, is counterpoint—that is, the use of two or more voices that are interdependent harmonically yet independent in rhythm and contour. The piece is arranged as a canon, which means that Paul leads with the initial melody and Art follows in a contrapuntal derivation, overlapping his transformed melody with Paul’s in unique ways. Unlike the prototype, the Simon and Garfunkel version adds a cello and guitar accompaniment.
In my opinion this modern adaptation improves upon the Lassus motet and would make a stunning performance piece for a Palm Sunday service or even Advent.
6. The Sound of Silence. [Listen] “Hello darkness, my old friend” is one of the most iconic opening song lines ever written. Like “Bleecker Street,” “The Sound of Silence” is about man’s inability to communicate with man—a “cancer,” Paul calls it: “People talking without speaking / People hearing without listening.” The silence Paul refers to is not an absence of noise but rather a constant white noise of superficial chatter, the absence of meaningful exchange.
“Neon” is used twice to signify artificiality. The “neon god” that people fashioned and bow and pray to is probably a reference to television, which manipulates its devotees through advertising, making empty promises and preaching empty values. Or it could be a broader reference to commercialism in general. Read through a present-day lens, it could also be seen as a condemnation of our overdependence on smartphones, our substituting screen interaction for in-person face time.
The song was not an instant hit, but it started getting some radio play in key markets in the spring after its release, and there was talk of its being released as a single. Producer Tom Wilson thought it too soft for that, so he decided to overdub it with rock instrumentation: an electric guitar, electric piano, bass, and drums. Paul was now living in England, and Art was finishing up his art history BA at Columbia University. Without the boys’ knowledge, Wilson went ahead and hired musicians to work out the parts and play them through, all in a few hours, and then proceeded to release the dubbed version of “The Sound of Silence” in September 1965—which is the version everyone now knows and loves.
Though Paul bristled a little bit upon first hearing it, he and Art were ultimately supportive of Wilson’s move, which turned out to be a career saver. The new “Sound of Silence” topped the charts and fixed Simon and Garfunkel’s resolve, previously wavering, to continue making albums together. This was the beginning of the duo’s shift into a folk-rock style and of their rise to Hall of Fame stardom.
7. He Was My Brother. [Listen] Inspired by the growing violence directed against civil rights workers in the South, Paul Simon’s “He Was My Brother” tells an imagined story of a Freedom Rider’s death at the hands of racists. It was recorded in March 1964 but has come to be associated with Andrew Goodman, a former classmate of Paul’s at Queens College who was one of three activists murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964, by Ku Klux Klansmen in their attempt to register blacks to vote.
When Goodman died, Paul’s performance of “He Was My Brother” gained a new fervency, and before live audiences he often changed “This town” in the original lyrics to “Mississippi” to reinforce the real-life connection: “Mississippi’s gonna be your buryin’ place.”
The sharpest lines, delivered with raw force, are in verse 3: “They shot my brother dead / Because he hated what was wrong.” But the most moving lines are the final two, where the notion of brotherhood is widened beyond racial affiliations to include all humanity: “He was my brother / And he died so his brothers could be free.” (Goodman was white, whereas the “brothers” whose rights he fought for were black.) I’ve embedded a live performance below, from 1966.
8. Peggy-O. [Listen] Also known as “The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie,” this is a traditional Scottish ballad of unrequited love, freshly arranged by Simon and Garfunkel. Many of the verses are left out of this version, making the captain’s vow to burn his lover’s city at the end seem random.
9. Go Tell It on the Mountain. [Listen] Typically sung at Christmas, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” celebrates the nativity of Christ, enjoining Christians to shout the good news from the highest peaks. It first appeared in print in the 1909 compilation Religious Folk Songs of the Negro, as Sung on the Plantations. Because it was shared and preserved orally for quite a while, lyrics vary. Simon and Garfunkel sing just two verses, and they preface each chorus with a “Hallelujah!”
10. The Sun Is Burning. [Listen] Written in 1963 by British folk revivalist Ian Campbell, this song cautions against nuclear disaster. Whereas the first two verses describe idyllic park scenes—drifting clouds and droning bees at daytime (and the sun burning benignly), then cuddling bench dwellers at dusk (watching the sun descend, sure to rise tomorrow)—the third verse prefigures doom, as in the sky “a little blossom blooms and then draws near.” In the final two verses the “sun” visits earth and burns it up, then departs, leaving behind darkness and destruction:
Now the sun has come to Earth
Shrouded in a mushroom cloud of death
Death comes in a blinding flash
Of hellish heat and leaves a smear of ash
And the sun has come to Earth
Now the sun has disappeared
All is darkness, anger, pain, and fear
Twisted, sightless wrecks of men
Go groping on their knees and cry in pain
And the sun has disappeared
11. The Times They Are a-Changin’. [Listen] Bob Dylan wrote this generational anthem in October 1963 and released it in January 1964, and it has since become a folk standard. It’s a gathering song, summoning the masses to a new world order: “Come gather ’round people”; “Come writer and critics”; “Come senators, congressmen”; “Come mothers and fathers.” The language is imprecise, not linked to any one specific political issue, but its core message is that progress is underway; don’t block it! Be on the right side of history. The final verse invokes one of Jesus’s well-known apocalyptic sayings: “And the first one now / Will later be last” (Matthew 19:30, 20:16; cf. Mark 10:31).
12. Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. [Listen] The speaker of the album’s title track, a Paul Simon original, adoringly watches his sweetheart sleep, noticing her hair, her breath, her warmth. We then find out that he’s mentally storing up these sensory details because he’ll be gone when the day breaks, for he has robbed a liquor store and is being hunted. He expresses remorse for this foolish action and will presumably be giving himself up in the morning, but until then, he treasures one last night with his love.
Folk music is my genre of choice. I love an all-acoustic sound and appreciate the socially conscious and faith-inspired lyrics that abound in the folk songbook. Unfortunately the movement was going out of vogue at the time Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. came out, due to the British Invasion, so Simon and Garfunkel had to go the way of Dylan and the Byrds and adopt a hybrid folk-rock style to be viable as career artists. They enjoyed exploring this new direction, and we are all the better for the amazing body of work it led to.
But this first album of theirs, I believe, deserves wider recognition, even if it doesn’t fit the “in” mold of its time or ours, which does not abide glimmer-eyed optimism, religious specificity, or moral posturing, and which favors instead angst-riddled lyrics with veiled meanings. Critic Cornel Bonca dismisses Wednesday Morning’s two songs of straightforward celebration (“You Can Tell the World” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain”) as “campfire chestnuts” and “treacly-earnest,” and the two antiwar songs (“Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and “The Sun Is Burning”) as “simple-minded.” Furthermore, Bonca writes, the Dylan cover lacks edge, “Benedictus” is just too “pious,” and “Sparrow” reads like a dutifully written high-school English assignment.
It’s true that some of the songs lack shading. I think a lot of the criticism centers on the accusation that Simon and Garfunkel’s “too pretty” vocals make everything sound sweet, from atom-bomb explosions to a spurned lover’s vindictive rampage. The disconnect between content and tone that results can lessen the song’s overall impact. And when, on the other hand, content and tone match to express undiluted joy or acclamation, people prefer dilution; they prefer a troubled, questioning speaker who’s groping through the dark to one who has found the light.
I do not share this popular disinclination toward sweet or religiously exultant music, although I do also appreciate songs that give voice to emotional conflict. And Wednesday Morning gives us that range. It contains both darkness and light, doubt and confidence, melancholy and hope.
If you’re like me, you’re dying to know why Simon and Garfunkel, both Jewish, chose for their first album two traditional songs that unequivocally rejoice in the name of Jesus Christ, when they could have easily chosen other traditional African American songs derived from the Hebrew scriptures or that are altogether secular. Not only that, they selected a Christological song from Catholic high mass! I’m especially curious about what attracted them to “Benedictus.”
In Paul Simon: An American Tune (2015), Cornel Bonca muses about the same thing. He doesn’t arrive at a definitive answer, but he does identify a Christian strand that runs through Paul’s entire body of work:
The question of why a duo that proudly proclaimed its Jewishness (unlike Robert Zimmerman, who changed his name to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel didn’t hide their Jewishness to suit the marketplace) would sing a song from the Catholic liturgy only called attention to other songs on the album which were explicitly Christian, namely “You Can Tell the World” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” One answer—that like most early 1960s folkies, Simon & Garfunkel assumed a then-fashionable Christian ethic in their songs while not taking the faith literally—is superficially true but doesn’t explain enough. Simon, the youthful hard-headed cynic steeped in existential angst, would take Christianity—its ethics and some of its mythology, if not Christian faith itself—very seriously his entire career. Consider “Blessed” (from Sounds of Silence), the sardonic invocation of Christ’s beatitudes whose anger could only have come from someone who felt betrayed by a world that couldn’t live up to the Christian virtues; or “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a gospel hymn lauding selfless Christian love; or Graceland’s pervasive desire for “a shot of redemption”; or the often-explicit New Testament vocabulary of The Rhythm of the Saints; or finally the concern with love, death, and God (usually Christianized) that laces the entirety of So Beautiful or So What. Throughout his career, Simon’s music invokes Christian imagery, emotion, and ethics much more than it does the Jewish faith with which he was raised. And his regard for Christianity—particularly its values of love, sacrifice, and compassion for the poor and discarded, and its tireless struggle to approach the transcendent—will appear in his work with increasing intensity, especially in the late stages of his career. (23)
The latest Paul Simon biography, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin (2016), doesn’t much discuss the personal impact of religion on Paul. Of Paul’s Jewish upbringing, Carlin writes,
For Louis [Paul’s father], tradition held little interest, religion even less. Belle [Paul’s mother] felt very differently; she was a regular at the synagogue and happily enmeshed in the community and familiar rituals. Still, Louis set the tone for the boys, and when they felt the need to worship they made the pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium, where they could stand, sit, sing, and pray according to the rituals of American baseball. (10–11)
Carlin does tell us that when Paul was in England in late 1963, the people he was living with observed his “eagerness to turn dinners into long conversations about the United States, philosophy, and religion, which he loved to discuss even if he couldn’t believe in it” (82). Cursorily, Carlin mentions that at the end of 1968, “he was reading the Bible . . . his phrases felt earthier, from some other time” (171). And lastly, when teaching an evening songwriting workshop at NYU in spring 1970, Paul told one of his students, whose lyrics struck him as flat, to get a Bible because it is packed with odd, memorable phrases. “Just steal them,” he said. “That’s what they’re for.” (194)
“It’s funny because for somebody who is not a religious person, God comes up a lot in my songs,” Paul said in a 2012 interview. Religion journalist Cathleen Falsani calls him “a God-chronicler by accident.”
He may not adhere to any one religion, but Paul said he’s always thinking about the spiritual realm and asking questions. He has sought and received spiritual input from the Dalai Lama and from evangelical theologian John Stott.
I trade my tears
To ask the Lord
For proof of love
If only for the explanation
That tells me what my dreams are made of
Wow—what a lyric! It’s as if Paul is asking God to reveal himself as the fulfillment of all Paul’s dreams. Those dreams that found early expression in Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.—dreams of community and connectedness, justice, love, and peace.