It might be a fair guess to say that there are more covers on this album than on the other four S&G albums combined. But of the 12 songs on the album, 7 are covers... more than half the tracks. They break down into two categories... plus one that does not fit either.
The first category is folk versions of Christian, even Gospel-style, songs: "You Can Tell the World," "Go Tell it on the Mountain," and "Benedictus." It may seem strange to hear two "nice Jewish boys" singing such things, but when they were in England, post-college-- just as they were transitioning from being "Tom and Jerry" to "Simon and Garfunkel"-- one of their first breaks was providing music for a Christian radio show. The incongruity of Jews singing Christian music still raises eyebrows today; even in 2009, both Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan were offering new Christmas-song albums, and there were articles aplenty wondering at the sight.
That said, the two gospel numbers are sung boisterously and heartily, full of good cheer and "good news." Both are evangelical in nature, with the word "tell" right there in their titles-- one says to "Tell the world," and the other, "tell it... everywhere." Clearly, Simon is fine working with Christian imagery, and continues to be, as noted in the essay on "Bleecker Street." There are also such references in his more recent work, such as "the cross is in the ballpark," in "The Obvious Child" and "We celebrate the birth of Jesus" in "Old." For Simon, such ideas seem to be simply others he can access, alongside imagery of nature, modern life, etc.
Then there is "Benedictus," an arrangement of a Latin hymn done Gregorian-chant style. It is simply beautiful, and a better illustration of the duo's legendary ability to harmonize can scarcely be found.
Covers of "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" (E. McCurdy), "The Sun is Burning" (I. Campbell), and "The Times, They are A-Changin'" (Dylan) show Simon and Garfunkel doing what good folksingers have always done-- perform each others' songs. But these songs are more apocalyptic. The first paints a lovely dream of a UN-type council vowing to "never fight again." The second, however, is the nightmare version-- what will happen if the first, peaceful scenario is not fulfilled, with a nuclear Armageddon: "Now the Sun has come to Earth/ Shrouded in a mushroom cloud of death/ Death comes in a blinding flash/ of Hellish heat, and leaves a smear of ash."
The oft-covered Dylan number rounds out this trilogy with is warning to, as they used to say, get with the program: "you'd better start swimming /or you'll sink like a stone." Perhaps, taken together, these selection imply that there is a choice. Those who vow to "never fight again" will go "...dancing round and round/[with] guns and swords and uniforms/scattered on the ground," while those who make war will "go groping on their knees/ And cry in vain." As the third song explains: "he who gets hurt/ Will be he who has stalled."
Which leaves "Peggy-O," a traditional ballad. It is a story of helplessness and heartbreak. A travelling captain falls in love with a local lady and pledges her his adoration and fortune if she will leave with him: "You're the prettiest little girl I've ever seen/ In a carriage you will ride.../ As fair as any lady in the area."
Her friends, however, are having none of it: "What will you mother say/ when she finds you've gone away/ To places far and strange...?" No mention is made of her mother actually having a problem with this, so the soldier comes to the same conclusion as the listener and blames her friends for her refusal of him, telling Peggy: "If ever I return/ All your cities I will burn/ Destroying all the ladies in the area." This brave man, who can order a regiment of men into gunfire, cannot overcome the peer pressure of Peggy's jealous lady-friends. Throughout the song, Peggy herself is silent, the same as the Sparrow and other of Simon's characters here.
All of Simon's songs on the album are sad in some way or other. They tell stories of bleak streets, "restless dreams," a racist murder, and a fleeing criminal. Even a tired bird with a pretty song is abandoned when in need. What causes the sadness is a lack of connection, driven by fear. Simon tries to be a leader in "Sound of Silence": "Hear my words that I might teach you." But "Sound of Silence" is ultimately about people ignoring each other to worship a "neon god." So while there is a need to connect, people-- disappointed with each other-- reach to the concept of deity, only to again fail in their choice of one. The contemporary folksongs seem to be chosen to show the global implications of these personal decisions.
The overtly religious songs, the only happy ones here, come to provide a solution: "He brought joy, joy, joy into my heart" and "God sent salvation/ That holy Christmas morn." Humans, even the best intentioned ones, will ultimately let one down. Better to place your money on the Sure Bet.
In later albums, Simon will write other happy songs of his own. For now, his happiness is borrowed.
Next Song: Leaves That Are Green