The Untold Story: How Simon and Garfunkel Rose Above the 1960s NYC Folk Scene

‘The Sound of Silence’ helped bridge folk and rock music

Drew Wardle
The Riff


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It is hard to believe that Simon and Garfunkel were laughed at when performing their breakthrough single, ‘The Sound of Silence,’ throughout New York City’s folk community in 1964.

According to Dave Van Ronk, an important figure in the folk revival community, the song’s early performances did not go over well.

Due to its heavy imagery, some thought the lyrics were too whimsical and vague.

Biographer Marc Eliot wrote in Paul Simon: a life that ‘The Sound of Silence’ is overly vague:

“…it was the type of gloom-and-doom song that would become Paul’s special niche. With images that don’t connect — what is the sound of silence? — he appears to be making some sort of ‘God is dead’ statement (there is confusion about when the song was written and what it’s about: some claim it refers to the generational impact of the John F. Kennedy assassination, with its crowds of people — ‘ten thousand, maybe more.’”

But Eliot also asserts later in the book that the duo did, in fact, begin performing the song months prior to the assassination.

While Paul Simon is now considered one of the greatest songwriters of our time, he was a fledgling one back then and was perhaps overshadowed by Bob Dylan, who was active in the community as well.

Simon denies that he tried to imitate Dylan with “The Sound of Silence.’ But he does not deny Dylan’s vital influence even then.

During a 2000 interview with Mojo, he said:

“I tried very hard not to be influenced by him, and that was hard. ‘The Sound Of Silence’, which I wrote when I was 21, I never would have wrote it were it not for Bob Dylan. Never, he was the first guy to come along in a serious way that wasn’t a teen language song. I saw him as a major guy whose work I didn’t want to imitate in the least.”

The track’s multiple layers of meaning strike upon universal themes of religion, depression, cultural alienation, and historical events.

While any good songwriter is privy to their social and political climate and therefore holds some responsibility to write within this context, Simon has never overly glorified the song’s message. Perhaps as a 21-year-old, his uncynical perspective allowed him to channel into a deeper universal truth. “I wrote it in the bathroom in my parent’s house because the room was tiled, so there was an echo. I used to turn the lights off and leave the water running. It was like white noise, you know?” Simon told Michael Bonner during a 2018 interview with Uncut.

Its lyricism, rich in texture and imagery, paints a picture of the positives and negatives of isolation and the transcendence or madness that often follows close behind.

“The Sound of Silence” almost broke the iconic duo Simon and Garfunkel, but instead, it skyrocketed them to fame.

“Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence.”

Simon is literally speaking with his old friend, “the darkness”; in our retrospective naivety, we sometimes look for deeper meaning hidden in the past. No… Simon had the lights turned off in his bathroom.

Art Garfunkel offered his own interpretation during a performance:

“This is a song about the inability of people to communicate with each other…”

The last stanza may speak of the dangers of self-idolizing prophets who manipulate a silent population by using their own fear against them. There’s a very dangerous side to silence when people don’t speak up for themselves:

“And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said The words of the prophets
Are written on subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”

This is in stark contrast to the first half of the song, which portrays silence as idyllic spiritual transcendence.

Rock and folk begin crossing over

Simon and Garfunkel were eventually saved from the perils of being the laughingstock of the community, but not before almost being destroyed by the very thing that saved them.

An original acoustic folk version was recorded in March of 1964 at Columbia Studios and included on their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

Released later that year, only 3,000 copies were sold, which prompted the duo to go their separate ways: Simon went to England while Garfunkel would enroll at Columbia University.

The producer of the song, Tom Wilson, would have different plans in store.

Gradually, the song began to gain more airplay at radio stations, prompting Wilson to remix the track by overdubbing it with electric instruments and drums, effectively turning it into a rock ballad.

Simon and Garfunkel’s original vocal and guitar tracks stayed. The pair were allegedly unaware of Wilson’s endeavor at the time.

If you listen carefully to the more popular version, you will notice some imperfections in the recording — the drums have to slow down near the beginning of the second verse so as not to get ahead of Simon and Garfunkel’s original vocal and guitar track.

This also tells us that the duo did not record with a metronome and that their process was an organic one.

Columbia Records re-released the song in September of 1965 and shot straight to the top of the Billboard charts. It is a testament to the importance of how a song is presented and in which style.

Coincidentally, Wilson remixed the song the same year that Bob Dylan “went electric” in a controversial move at the Newport Folk Festival.

These two parallel moves could be interpreted as undermining the folk community, which signaled the start of a marriage between rock ’n’ roll and folk music, where artists from the two worlds would begin to borrow from each other.

It was further solidified when The Beatles released Rubber Soul later in the year — an album that showcased the British band utilizing more sophisticated lyrical content.

One could argue that Simon and Garfunkel influenced The Beatles — an accolade usually reserved for Dylan alone.

For Simon, ‘The Sound of Silence’ was a major jump in the quality of his songwriting. “My brother says it was amazing that I wrote it, because everything I’d written before that was way below it in quality. It was a step up. It was probably one of those things when you’re in some kind of serotonin/dopamine flow, and it just comes out. But I was too young to know that those things happened. So I just took it as, “That’s a good one, I could close my act with this one,” Simon said during the Uncut interview.

While a creative triumph for Simon, Garfunkel said years later that Simon did not want to play many of the older songs anymore, including “The Sound of Silence.”

Simon has since expressed that he doesn’t relate to their earlier material anymore; Garfunkel thinks that the older songs, essentially their hits, are still relevant today, especially “The Sound of Silence.”

“I want ‘The Sound Of Silence’ to get angry at the end as if it’s timeless. The impoverished are screaming, ‘F — k this unfair system,’ just like they’ve always screamed it. It’s a timeless thing. It lives if you can make it live, onstage tonight like it did when it was written in ‘64,” Garfunkel said in a 1993 interview with Paul Zollo.

“The real game is, can you make something interesting enough, entertaining enough, intriguing enough that the listener will listen again?” Simon said, commenting on the craft of songwriting.