Paul Simon, The Sound Of America

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007

Paul Simon's first encounter with the Library of Congress came in 1956, when, as a 14-year-old, he sent his first song to the Library's Copyright Office. When Simon visited the library recently, he was reunited with the lead sheet that secured his copyright registration for "The Girl for Me," credited to P. Simon and A. Garfunkel.

"It's extremely touching for me because it's in my father's hand," says Simon, whose father, Louis, played bass in dance bands and television orchestras in New York. "He was a musician and he would write the lead sheet up, and then Artie and I would give him the money and we would send it off to the Library of Congress -- I think it was $14 to register a copyright at that point."

Artie, of course, would be Art Garfunkel. They first collaborated as sixth-graders in the P.S. 164 production of "Alice in Wonderland" (Simon was the White Rabbit; Garfunkel, the Cheshire Cat). An early reel-to-reel home recording -- the first true Simon & Garfunkel memento -- has apparently been lost to history.

By the time they got to Forest Hills High School, P. Simon and A. Garfunkel were performing as a duo at school dances and taking a first official stab at a recording career. At 16, they recorded as Tom & Jerry; their "Hey, Schoolgirl" single reached No. 49 on the pop charts in 1957.

They'd do much better as Simon & Garfunkel.

Fifty years on, Simon is set to become the first recipient of the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, named in honor of George and Ira Gershwin. As the Mark Twain Prize has done for American humor, the annual Gershwin Prize will honor an American composer or performer "whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins," the library says. The same producers who originated the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1998 have been working to establish a popular-music corollary since 2000.

Simon will receive the prize in an invitation-only ceremony Tuesday in the library's Great Hall, followed by a gala concert Wednesday at the Warner Theatre. Garfunkel, with whom Simon has had an off-and-on-and-off-and-on relationship for almost 60 years, will be there, along with such collaborators as the Dixie Hummingbirds, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Philip Glass (who 15 years ago argued that one had to look to Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin to find talent comparable to Simon's), as well as Stevie Wonder, Yolanda Adams, Alison Krauss, Stephen Marley and James Taylor. Pals Bob Costas and Lorne Michaels will serve as presenters, along with former poet laureate Billy Collins. The concert will be recorded and broadcast June 27 on PBS.

It's not as if Simon's work hasn't been recognized. He has a dozen Grammy Awards, including three for album of the year, and was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as half of Simon & Garfunkel and later for his solo work. Five years ago, he was a Kennedy Center honoree.

This one's special, Simon says, partly because it's not an industry award but comes "from an overview of the nation's culture as defined by the Library of Congress, which is an incredible place." Also, it's recognition of "the values that the Gershwins exemplified: a sophistication, an exploration of other aspects of American culture, a curiosity about other cultures. I think that was part of the reason they thought the Gershwin name would be what they wanted to represent this award."

And, of course, why Simon was chosen to receive it. Like that of the Gershwins, Simon's music runs deep in the American consciousness.

According to James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, "Paul Simon's contribution has been very special and deserving of recognition, as indicated by the quality of people coming to this event. . . . As our first designee, we made it clear that real musical craftmanship is involved, as well as a lifetime of achievement, continued growth and diversification."

Billington says the library is "a tremendous repository of popular music in America, with 6 million pieces of sheet music and 5 million recorded musical pieces, as well as its copyrights and collections deposited by composers and performers." Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, Billington is responsible for annually selecting recordings that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" for the National Recording Registry, which now numbers 225 pieces of recorded sound. One of the latest additions: "Graceland," Simon's monstrously popular 1986 album, which fused contemporary songwriting with South African, zydeco and Tex-Mex music sources and performers.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company