Demo-itis 2: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon

Demo-itis is our series of demos of famous songs, which started here with John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever.” These demos are fun to hear, and instructive for songwriters in that it shows how even the greatest songs started with humble, often hesitant ideas. It’s also the best answer for non-songwriters who don’t understand the distinction between a song and a record, and the necessary challenge of making a record out of a song.

Often production ideas can shape the song itself. The finished studio record of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is one of the dramatic, powerfully dynamic records made by Simon & Garfunkel. But, as this demo shows, it started as a simple guitar-voice ballad with two verses. Simon never thought of it as a hit single, since it was a ballad, and it was unusualy for slow tempo ballads to become hits.

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Art Garfunkel & Paul Simon

Yet it was in the studio that this larger vision of “Bridge” was born. Both Art Garfunkel and engineer-producer Roy Halee felt it could a bigger production, which started small and then exploded into a giant, orchestral final verse. They both prevailed upon Simon to write a final third verse, which had a big ending.

At some point he agreed, and wrote the final, “Sail on silvergirl, sail on by,” verse. On that verse, Simon sings harmony. Though some felt this was a reference to shooting heroin, it was actually inspired, Simon said, by the silver strands that started to appear in first wife Peggy’s hair.

Simon’s demo was recorded before that third verse was written and much of the other verses were unformed. It suggests he had Garfunkel’s voice in mind while writing, as he sings it in a falsetto that sounds like Artie’s choir boy delivery.

Here’s Simon’s original demo and the studio version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Also there’s a portion of The Dick Cavett Show from April, 1970 when Simon spoke about the birth of this song.

See Demo-itis, Part One, “Strawberry Fields Forever” here.

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