The following prophecy, known as Zechariah’s Canticle, is given by the temple priest after the birth of his son, John—who would become “John the Baptist,” the forerunner to Jesus Christ. Zechariah can taste the sweet nearness of redemption, and he sings its song.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
For Christmas 1999 my parents bought me, a sixth grader at the time, the newBest 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. (And be sure to check out the choral arrangement by Alice Parker, on the 2010 album Listen, Lord.)
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 humanity’s failings. 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.” Continue reading “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. by Simon and Garfunkel (album review)”→