Simon and Garfunkel’s second studio album Sounds of Silence (pedants please note the plural Sounds) is interesting in several respects. First, all the tracks featuring on it, with two exceptions, appear in acoustic versions either on their debut album Wednesday Morning 3.00 A.M. or The Paul Simon Songbook or, in the case of ‘We’ve Got a Groovy Thing Goin’’, as a single B side. Secondly, it is the only album I am aware of that contains two consecutive tracks whose central characters elect to commit suicide. And, finally, it is an album whose commercial success was brought about by the astute, if somewhat underhand, wizardry of the talented black record producer Tom Wilson who, most notably, played midwife to many of Bob Dylan’s early triumphs.
The two tracks which hadn’t featured on earlier albums or as a single were a cover version of ‘Anji’ by the Guyanese-Scottish folk musician Davey Graham and the song ‘Blessed’. (‘Homeward Bound’ only appeared on the UK release of the album.)
Paul Simon, like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, draws repeatedly on Judaeo-Christian themes about judgment and redemption, often obliquely but at other times overtly. Wednesday Morning 3.00 A.M., for example, features the gospel ‘You Can Tell the World’ as well as ‘Benedictus’ taken from the Ordinary of the Mass. However, Simon, unlike Dylan, or indeed Jim Morrison, never went ‘full Rimbaud’. While his lyrics exhibit passion, they generally eschew or draw back from outright confrontation. More often than not, acute social observations are ‘slanted’ by a shrewd, literary knowingness which puts emphasis on politeness and polish, rather than libertine experimentation as pioneered by the French symbolists.
Unlike the well-known opening track ‘The Sound of Silence’ (pedants please note the single ‘Sound’!), ‘Blessed’ immediately hits the road hard with the drunken swagger of its backing track over which Simon and Garfunkel provide a contemporary, if idiosyncratic, take on the Beatitudes in St Matthew’s Gospel. This is ‘desolation row’ in mid-sixties London (not New York), a shabby, twilight world of homelessness, prostitution, drug abuse and extreme loneliness. “I have walked through Soho for the last night or so/ Ah, but it doesn’t matter, no.” not only highlights Simon’s particular love of rhyme, especially internal rhyme, but also his serious, if semi-detached, identification with people on the edge of society.
To label this song as ‘religious’ begs many questions. “Blessed are the stained glass, window pane glass/ Blessed is the church service makes me nervous.” The church referred to by Simon is St. Anne’s. Soho. Two years after the song’s composition, Kenneth ‘Ken’ Leech, one of the most talented priests of his generation, served a second curacy in the parish. The author of Keep the Faith, Baby: A Close-Up of London's Drop-Outs, Youthquake: The Growth of a Counter-Culture through Two Decades, A Practical Guide to the Drug Scene and Soul Friend: A Study of Spirituality, Leech was in many ways the last gasp of a strange, symbiotic relationship between Anglo-Catholicism and radical socialism which started with Conrad Noel’s founding of the British Socialist Party whilst Vicar of Thaxted Parish Church and Percy Widdrington’s founding of the League of the Kingdom of God sixteen years later whilst Vicar of St Peter’s, Hillfields in Coventry (where I served my first curacy). It was a symbiosis that sought to combine politics and prophecy, serious prayer and genuine pastoral care.
Ultimately ‘Blessed’ is perhaps the darkest song in Simon and Garfunkel’s discography. Fifty-three years after its release, it still maintains its capacity to haunt and challenge. Soho may have been gentrified and the Church of England managerialised in recent years, but homelessness and substance abuse have greatly increased in the intervening period, not just in the UK, but globally. Abandonment, defiance and resolution can all be found here: “O Lord why have you forsaken me?/My words trickle down, from a wound/That I have no intention to heal...O Lord why have you forsaken me?/ I have tended my own garden/Much too long.”
In a post-truth world, where jack boots are rapidly entering ‘stage right’, this worrying song needs extended play!