Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Sound of Silence: Heartfelt Words for a Quiet Morning

It was a bit startling to hear, amid the solemn pomp of Sunday’s 9/11 commemorative service at Ground Zero, Paul Simon crooning a particularly mournful version of “The Sound of Silence.” That song has been a part of my personal soundtrack since the Sixties, and I suspect that holds true for most of the Baby Boom generation.

“The Sound of Silence,” written by Simon in February 1964, was first recorded by Simon and Garfunkel for their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. I’m told Simon was responding partly to John F. Kennedy’s assassination two months earlier and partly to the nocturnal stillness of the household bathroom whose echo-chamber effects he found inspirational. In any case, the song soon became popular at folk clubs and on the radio, leading to a more rock-inflected remix in 1965. But after 1967, “The Sound of Silence” would be forever associated with The Graduate, a movie that Baby Boomers across the nation quickly took to their hearts.

Director Mike Nichols’ choice of “The Sound of Silence” and other Simon and Garfunkel tunes to score The Graduate was groundbreaking. He had been listening to the duo’s albums while working on the film’s script, believing that their gentle melancholy fit his story of a disenchanted young man coming home from college to enter his parents’ world. Eventually, Nichols hired Simon to compose a score, but ended up with only one song, the jaunty “Mrs. Robinson” (hey, hey, hey). The rest of the film incorporates existing Simon and Garfunkel songs in a way that was brand-new to movies. Until 1967, American movie music was typically orchestral, and was commissioned, late in the filmmaking process, to suit a particular project. Instead Nichols began with familiar songs, often letting them play at length to drive whole sequences. And Simon and Garfunkel’s soft guitars and underlying rock beat made this feel like a young person’s score. The soundtrack album quickly became a top-seller, and the start of a lucrative new source of entertainment revenue.

Whether or not "The Sound of Silence" was meant to reflect the Kennedy assassination, its enigmatic lyrics (about subway walls, neon gods, silent prophets, and people talking without speaking) have burrowed themselves into our nation’s collective consciousness. These words are first heard at the very beginning of The Graduate, as Benjamin Braddock -- his face a blank -- is transported through Los Angeles International Airport via moving sidewalk, then lifts his suitcase off a conveyor belt before exiting through an automatic door to greet his post-graduate future. Early fans of The Graduate easily found in the song an expression of the modern world’s sterility, and of the fatal communication gap between parents and their coming-of-age offspring. In late years, we could see in “The Sound of Silence” an indictment of a society that sent young men off to meaningless wars in faraway lands.

The program for New York’s tenth-anniversary Ground Zero commemoration indicated that Simon would sing a more inspirational song, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” It was not to be. Perhaps Simon felt that, in the absence of the Twin Towers and the thousands who had died there, the eerie stillness of “The Sound of Silence” was more fitting. Perhaps, on this deeply-felt occasion, he was choosing the lyric that emphasized questions, not answers. In any case, I’m certain this haunting song fit the place where it was sung, reverberating in the well of silence.


  1. It was the song chosen by my high school graduating class in 1969 to replace Pomp and Circumstance. It was intended as a protest again the Vietnam war. The principal asked me to explain the lyrics. Not an easy task, but they went along with it.

  2. I'm impressed, Charles, that you got your high school administration to accept "The Sound of Silence" as a graduation march. Mine (fuddy-duddies all) would never have stood for it. I guess you were silver-tongued even in those days!

  3. I love this song; a true classic with such a haunting sound, and those wonderful lyrics. I'm glad Mr. Simon switched to this - to me it means more than BOTW - another great song to be sure - but without the magic of TSoS.

  4. So true! From the very first guitar chords, before even a note is sung, I always recognize this special song.