What shall I write about Paul Simon? In the language of social media, it's complicated. There is no question of artistry and talent. There is, however, something to be said about how one chooses to apply his art and talent.
My initial encounter with Simon and Garfunkel took place in the dark. I was lying in a sleeping bag with my trusty Bakelite radio, the lone accoutrement in my unfurnished basement bedroom. We had just moved into our new house in a wooded area of Minnetonka, and a deep window well allowed me to sense the dark outside as well. Halloween season was upon us. Suddenly one of the eeriest songs I had ever heard crept onto the radio. "The Sound of Silence" amazed me for its poetic quality and the mixture of quiet voices in harmony with electric guitar and rock drums. Hearing it in that setting was scary, but so interesting!
Fast forward one year to Christmas '66. Uncle John sent us Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. From the start, the album cast a spell on me with its odd combination of confidence, satire, vulnerability, and beauty. The whole family commented favorably on Uncle John's gift. (I believe it's the same copy pictured above, though it's plain that the album was used as an easel for a drawing game we play called Redondo, since you can see red Sharpie has leaked on to Art Garfunkel's hair.)
I tended to not listen to the Simon oeuvre after this, though of course it was ever present in American life. I first noticed trouble brewing when my father complained with uncharacteristic bitterness about a Paul Simon song that WCCO was playing. The song, "American Tune," ripped-off the composer Hans Leo Hassler, who had written the music heard in the Lenten hymn, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," as well as in a Chorale from J.S. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion. The fact that Simon got away with calling it an American tune when it was so clearly a German tune, was particularly galling for my father. The cluelessness of the mainstream WCCO announcers added insult to injury.
In later years, Simon would use backings from various cultures to craft his own songs. On Graceland's "Homeless," for example, Simon had the South African vocalists, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, back him up. Some folks groused about what they perceived as a kind of over-the-line usage of others' talents by Simon, but the fact is his touch had a way of propelling those artists to worldwide fame.
Los Lobos, on the other hand, felt burned by Simon's Graceland, at least according to the band's saxophonist, Steve Berlin. In a stunning interview with Scott Caffrey, Berlin claims outright theft. For the record, Simon's version of what transpired appears on the Graceland Wikipedia page.
But for me, the aha moment came when I found that a song I loved, Scarborough Fair/Canticle, was not arranged by Simon, but by the British folkie guitarist and singer, Martin Carthy.
Carthy says he taught the song to Simon, and at any rate released the version you hear above (just before Simon and Garfunkel's) one year before Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme came out. This thyme it treads on my memories, and I'm left with a sour herbal flavor.
I listen to a lot of Martin Carthy now. Think I'll start checking out Los Lobos, too.