The Meaning Behind “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel

Inspired by an old southern gospel song, Paul Simon wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” fairly quickly. The song, Simon & Garfunkel’s second single off their fifth album Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970, became one of the folk duo’s biggest hits and their signature song, topping the U.S. and U.K. charts and picking up five Grammy awards in 1971, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

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Simon’s Gospel Song

Listening to the southern gospel group Swan Silvertones’ 1959 song “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” one particular line rang out to Simon,— I’ll be your bridge over deep water / If you trust in my name—which helped Simon finish “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and its more gospel elements.

“It was the music that was in my mind most of the time, and every time that I came home, I put that record on, and I listened to it,” Simon told Dick Cavett in a rare 1970 interview. “I think that must have subconsciously influenced me, and I started to go to gospel [chord] changes.” 

When you’re weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I’ll dry them all
I’m on your side
Oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Simon Wrote it but Art Sang it

Though Simon wrote the song, he insisted that Art Garfunkel sing it. Produced by the duo, along with longtime collaborator Roy Halee. Simon later regretted having Art sing the song after witnessing how the song blew up for the pair. “He didn’t want to sing it,” Simon said in a 1973 Rolling Stone interview. “He couldn’t hear it for himself. He felt I should have done it. And many times I’m sorry I didn’t do it.”

Chipping Away at the Meaning

The line Like a bridge over troubled water is a metaphor for someone living through a trying time in their life, and I will lay me down references the sacrifices and perseverance as they find a way through difficulty.

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part
Oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around

The ‘Silver Girl’ Verse

By the third verse, which begins Sail on silver girl / Sail on by / Your time has come to shine, the song shifts slightly and focuses on a girl—later revealed as a reference to Simon’s then-wife Peggy Harper—but remains universal and connected to the meaning of the song, focused on someone who needs help during a difficult time—All your dreams are on their way / See how they shine / Oh, if you need a friend / I’m sailing right behind.

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind

‘Troubled’ Times

When the song was first written in 1969, America was in a state. Vietnam was in motion, Richard Nixon was president, and the country was still coping with the loss of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, who were both assassinated in 1968. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” spoke to the turmoil of the times and continues to adapt to more recent times, used as an uplifting anthem around more tragic events. In 2005, Simon & Garfunkel reunited to sing the song to help raise money for those affected by Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, the song was also remixed by British artists for the Artists for Grenfell, following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London.

Under the Covers

Throughout the past 50 years, everyone from Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, The Jackson 5, Peggy Lee, The Supremes, Roberta Flack, Mary J.Blige and Andrea Bocelli, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin—who won a Grammy for her version in 1972—and more have covered the classic song.

Photo: Legacy Recordings

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