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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.

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.

"In the beginning, I wasn't really interested in the performance, I was much more interested in the writing and the record making," Simon admits. "Partly that's because I started as half of a duo. I could really step back and let Artie's voice carry a significant part of the load. When I went by myself, I used to think, 'I'm not a performer by choice; the performance is the idea of what I thought up. I'm now going to be the person who expresses the idea of the writer. Whether I'm the most ideal singer of Paul Simon the writer, I probably am not, but, well, that's what my job is.' "

On Wednesday, of course, Simon won't have to carry the load.

"From a songwriter's perspective, it's a dream come true, really, to have that many gifted people go and do a version of one of your songs. Also, the choices of the songs are pretty interesting."

Simon defined the repertoire, "but not rigidly. The only thing I said was, 'Artie is going to sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water." ' It really belongs with Artie; historically and in this particular context, I couldn't see anyone else but Artie on that."

It has been nearly 40 years since "Bridge" reigned atop the charts. It has been about 20 years since Simon had a Top 30 hit ("You Can Call Me Al"), 27 since he breached the Top 10 ("Late in the Evening"). Last year's "Surprise" was critically acclaimed as Simon's best album since "Graceland," but it didn't sell well.

"I don't expect anymore to have that kind of acceptance," Simon says. "I don't think that's going to happen anymore, and there are a lot of reasons for that. The main reason is that I started so young and I've been writing songs for so long, the areas that I get interested in, they're arcane to the average listener. The songs that I wrote when I was younger -- which were really at the limit of what I was feeling emotionally or what I knew musically -- were simpler and easier to grasp.

"Why do people love 'Slip Slidin' Away' rather than 'Darling Lorraine?' The answer is simple: I can see people singing along to 'Slip Slidin' Away' -- it's easy to sing along with -- and the other one is not easy to sing along with. The ideal thing would be to be simple and complex at the same time, like a haiku, but that's pretty hard to do.

"That's one of the challenges as you get older. It isn't 'How am I going to have a hit?' but 'How am I going to express myself as clearly as I can while at the same time leading people into a mystery which is always entertaining and possibly moving as well?' That's what I'm interested in. I want to know about the mystery. Then I have to think: 'Do I solve this mystery, or do I just embrace it because of the pleasure of the mystery?' That's the mystical."

Paul Simon tribute concert with Art Garfunkel, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Philip Glass, Stephen Marley, James Taylor and more Wednesday at the Warner Theatre

Sounds like: The Paul Simon songbook on parade.

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