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Paul Simon, The Sound Of America
Simon's visit to the library and its expansive Gershwin Collection was his first, "though I've been to Washington many times and never stopped there. It was quite extraordinary to see the breadth of their holdings -- quite amazing."
Among the items Simon saw: Samuel Morse's first telegraph message ("What hath God wrought?"), a pasta maker designed by Thomas Jefferson and such iconic musical documents as George Gershwin's score for "Rhapsody in Blue," manuscripts by Beethoven and Mozart, and Aaron Copland's library-commissioned ballet score for "Appalachian Spring," which made its premiere (with the Martha Graham Dance Company) at the library in 1944.
The library music division's holdings eventually will include many of Simon's manuscripts and recordings, testament to a career quite extraordinary in its breadth, albeit full of peaks and valleys. Tom & Jerry broke up to go to college, Garfunkel to Columbia University, Simon to Queens College, where it shouldn't surprise anyone that he earned a degree in English literature.
Both continued to work separately in the music business, Simon more actively, releasing a series of rock-and-roll singles, often under pseudonym and seldom with success. They'd eventually reunite in 1964 on a folk-style album, "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM." It was a flop (3,000 copies) until producer Tom Wilson remixed one of the five Simon originals, "The Sound of Silence," overdubbing electric guitar, bass and drums, and rereleasing it as a single that eventually went to No. 1. Simon had already moved to England to pursue a solo career that was suddenly interrupted as Simon & Garfunkel became one of the era's biggest-selling and most popular acts before splitting again in 1971.
Simon's early songs tended toward simple folk or folk-rock melodies, poetically ambitious lyrics and the influence of folk, doo-wop, gospel and jazz. As a solo artist, he ranged more widely, to Jamaica (the 1972 single "Mother and Child Reunion" was a first whiff of reggae in pop), South Africa and Brazil (1990's "The Rhythm of the Saints").
Through five decades, Simon's craft has been defined by impeccable musicianship, obsessive craft, an acute eye for detail and ears attuned to murmurs of the heart and soul, their travails and evolutions rendered with irony, humor and compassion. Simon's songs are part of the public consciousness, key lyrics part of our vernacular.
In the liner notes to "The Paul Simon Song Book," a 1965 U.K.-only album released before Simon & Garfunkel's breakthrough, Simon dismissed some of his songs, writing, "It's disconcerting, almost painful to look back over something someone else created and realize that someone else was you." By the way, that "Song Book" featured future standards that didn't appear in the States until 1966's "Sounds of Silence" album, including "I Am a Rock," "Leaves That Are Green," "A Most Peculiar Man" and "Kathy's Song."
And there were still so many more "someone elses" to come.
"I don't have that kind of dramatic judgment which is kind of typical when you're in your middle 20s," Simon says, adding that he hasn't looked at "the really early stuff" for a while because he's working on an "Essentials" collection focused on his solo recording career, which has proved to have surprisingly long and strong legs. Last year's "Surprise," a collaboration with avant-art rock producer Brian Eno, was the work of an artist who, at 65, is clearly more focused on moving forward than looking back or resting on his laurels.
"It's following what you like about music at the moment," he says. "Every time I finish a record, in the year that follows, I think, 'What I really liked about that record was this, and what I don't care about is this.' The next place I went was an extension of what I really liked. Sometimes, it was a reaction to what I didn't like." "Graceland," Simon says, was his reaction to frustrations with the traditional songwriting approaches on 1983's "Hearts and Bones," one of his finest solo albums -- and his lowest-charting ever. Not only were there fresh cultural influences on "Graceland," but Simon retooled his integration of lyrics on top of musical tracks, often wiping out entire songs until he found the right match.
The Library of Congress will receive the extensive works-in-progress archives Simon has been keeping since he began "Graceland," written notes on yellow legal pads tracing how songs were made lyrically and CDs "of every little phase of a recording that typically starts with a drum pattern, or three or four, then edits and evolution and additions," he explains. "It may go on for months before you start to hear a vocal come down, and by the time you complete the process, you can hear every little nuance of what I decided to change in phrasing. It's pretty interesting to be able to document it so effortlessly."
If writing is a solitary act and the province of the introvert, public performance is that of the extrovert. Through the decades, it has been fairly obvious which one Simon is more attuned to.