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What Most People Don’t Know About Simon And Garfunkel’s “The Sound Of Silence”

They’re familiar words, ones that can spark a memory, bring a tear, or just inspire a pause in the midst of chaotic day-to-day living. “Hello darkness, my old friend,” the opening lines of the Simon & Garfunkel megahit “The Sound Of Silence,” are well known, often repeated, and the lead-in to a song that became a hallmark of the duo’s career.

Ultimately becoming a #1 hit in the United States, the song has a storied history that sheds light on the creative process and musical collaboration of two of the most prolific contemporary songwriters in the U.S.

Photo: Rex Features

Shedding Light On How It All Began

According to Paul Simon, “ [One of my first jobs] was to take the songs that this huge publishing company owned and go around to record companies and see if any of their artists wanted to record the songs. I worked for them for about six months and never got a song placed, but I did give them a couple of my songs because I felt so guilty about taking their money.”

But Simon soon realized that giving away songs for free was far from an ideal employment situation. “I got into an argument with them and said, ‘Look, I quit, and I’m not giving you my new song.’ And the song that I had just written was “The Sound of Silence.” Simon would go on to explain that the opening line of “Hello darkness, my old friend” was inspired by episodes in Simon’s childhood when he would experiment with singing in his bathroom with the lights out.

At that point in time, he decided to take control of his musical pursuits and publish the song himself. Little did he know at the time what a hit the song would ultimately become.

Photo: Rex Features

A Beautiful Sound

While looking for a song publishing deal, Simon played “The Sound Of Silence” for Tom Wilson at Columbia Records. Wilson had planned to shop the song to a band called The Pilgrims, but Simon instead performed the song for him with fellow New Yorker Art Garfunkel. When Columbia Records heard the duo’s version of the song, the company immediately signed both artists.

The first acoustic version of the song failed to catch on and sold only about 2,000 copies. At that point, the singing duo of Simon and Garfunkel decided to go their separate ways in the wake of the song’s apparent failure to spark much interest.

Producer Tom Wilson, however, tweaked the song and added in some electric instruments before he released it as a single, all without alerting Simon and Garfunkel about the changes he had made. Simon learned that his song had become a #1 hit while he was in England; Garfunkel received the surprising news while away at college.

Photo: Getty Images

According to Simon, the lasting impact of “The Sound of Silence” can be attributed to its simplicity. “My thinking is that if you don’t have the right melody, it really doesn’t matter what you have to say, people don’t hear it. They only are available to hear when the sound enters and makes people open to the thought. Really the key to “The Sound of Silence” is the simplicity of the melody and the words, which are youthful alienation.
It wasn’t something that I was experiencing at some deep, profound level – nobody’s listening to me, nobody’s listening to anyone – it was a post-adolescent angst, but it had some level of truth to it and it resonated with millions of people. Largely because it had a simple and singable melody.”

The duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel would experience legendary musical success for several decades before deciding they no longer wanted to perform together after completing a series of New York shows in 1993. For many of the duo’s fans, their absence in the music world was nothing short of deafening silence.