Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. by Simon and Garfunkel (album review)

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.

Simon and Garfunkel
Simon and Garfunkel, 5th Avenue and 53rd Street subway station, New York City, 1964. Photo: Henry Parker (cover shoot for Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.).

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.”   Continue reading Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. by Simon and Garfunkel (album review)”

Remembering Charleston

Friday, June 17, marks the one-year anniversary of the racially motivated mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members were killed by gunman Dylann Roof at a midweek service: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson.

In response to the tragic event, Alabama artist Liz Landgren painted A Bridge Over Troubled Water, which shows the nine victims ascending, winged and haloed, from the troubled waters of this world.

A Bridge Over Troubled Water by Liz Landgren
Liz Landgren (American, 1974–), A Bridge Over Troubled Water, 2015. Acrylic on wood panel, 36 × 36 in.

Landgren says her visualization was inspired by Aretha Franklin’s 1971 cover of the Simon and Garfunkel song “Bridge Over Troubled Water”:

The original song premiered on November 30, 1969, on the CBS documentary feature Songs of America. Here, as in Landgren’s painting, it was connected with death, being played over footage from the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Paul Simon, who wrote the song, says his idea for it came from a line that Claude Jeter extemporized in the Swan Silvertones’ 1958 recording of the African American spiritual “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.” The speaker is Jesus; the context, his raising of Lazarus (see John 11:32–33). So whereas “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is often transmitted today as a message from one friend to another, its source material actually identifies that friend as Jesus, the one who lays himself down so that we can cross over pain without drowning in it.

Because of the religious significance of the song, Simon sought to give it a gospel feel. For this task he enlisted the help of Larry Knechtel, who arranged the song for piano (Simon had written it on guitar), styling it after church hymns. Knechtel’s piano playing is one of the song’s most distinguishing characteristics.

So back to Landgren’s painting. The waters of suffering roll off the figures’ garments, a heaviness they no longer bear, as they “sail on by” to be with their Lord. Saints on earth, they now pass into the extended communion of saints in heaven, leaving behind a world that’s roiling with violence and hate, anger and grief.

We lament the deaths of the Charleston Nine. We lament the laws that make it easier to kill. We lament the dividedness of our country. But we celebrate the witness of Sharonda, Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Depayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, and Myra, whose Christian hospitality toward a white stranger cost them their lives.

The painting brings to my mind another song: “All God’s chillun [children] got wings . . . a robe . . . a crown . . . a song,” and when we get to heaven we’re gonna put them on.

Praise be to God, who raises us up—from death and from woe.