Monday, January 11, 2010

Canticle / The Side of a Hill

The lines interspersed with "Scarborough Fair" are called, in the title of that song, "Canticle." This word means "a song taken from the Bible," such as the song sung by the Jews at the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus, or Deborah's song in Judges. This song, of course, is not, but it is interesting to consider in that light.

"Canticle" is taken from another source, yes, but that source is another Simon song, "The Side of a Hill." The song appears on "Songbook," a solo album Simon made after "Wednesday Morning"; it was recently re-released on CD. This album is well worth getting for any Simon fan, as it allows many of his best early works to be heard in their simplest, "unplugged" form-- just a man and a guitar.

"The Side of a Hill" is an anti-war song about the pointed lack of a reaction to the killing of a seven-year-old boy during a war in a generic "land called 'Somewhere'." A soldier (the one who killed him?) busies himself cleaning his gun, the war itself "rages on," and the general populace has forgotten "what a child's life is worth" while they battle "for a cause they've long ago forgotten."

The only entity that mourns is Nature: "A little cloud weeps/ And waters the grave with its silent tears."

The "Canticle"-- once teased from "Scarborough Fair" and presented as its own poem-- is not as long, and repeats some of the "Hill" lines, if with variations. The "silent" tears become "silvery" instead, and the war no longer "rages," but now "bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions." Color-wise, aside from the silver and scarlet, "Somewhere" is depicted as being a "deep forest green" color.

The setting is still "On the side of a hill," and the soldier still cleans his gun impassively while the cloud weeps, and the "generals" still "order their soldiers to kill" for that forgotten cause.

But, even if shorter, "Canticle" is a more sophisticated work. The imagery is at once more visually vivid and more psychologically obscure. The original work is a decent anti-war protest, along the lines of "One Tin Soldier" or "Eve of Destruction." Well, more along the lines of a Tom Paxton song like "Whose Garden Was This?" tonally. Or even Simon's own "Sparrow."

Speaking of which, a "sparrow" appears early in "Canticle," flying over... what? "Snow" that forms the "blankets and bedclothes [of] a child... [who] sleeps." Rather than spell out that there is a grave beneath the snow, Simon only hints at it at first.

The child is "unaware of the clarion call." Again, a call for what?

In the second verse, it is made plain that yes, this is a "grave." Again, Nature mourns, but instead of a (somewhat cliche) weeping cloud, we have "a sprinkling of leaves/ [that] Washes the grave with silvery tears." Crying leaves, while more difficult to imagine, is certainly a more innovative image.

And here is our gun-polishing soldier. There is no "while," linking the soldier to the fallen child this time, merely the assertion of his presence. There are soldiers about in peacetime, but this must count as at least foreshadowing.

The last verse has the line describing the "battalions," which solidly confirms that the "clarion" from the first verse was war-related-- either a call to arms or a warning of an oncoming attack.

"Canticle" shows how much Simon has progressed as a writer in a very short time. He released "Songbook" in 1965 (although he could have written "Hill" at any point before that) and "Parsley, Sage" just a year later. The effect is the opposite of the progression (or regression) from "Wednesday Morning" to "Somewhere They Can't Find Me." Instead of backsliding into pop cliches, Simon takes a marginal song and turns it into a poem worth a second look.

There is a difference between simple and simplistic, and it is the difference between "Canticle" and "The Side of a Hill." While it would never be mistaken for an actual canticle, "Canticle" deserves to be more widely known than its parent song, as it is. But it also warrants even more attention than it gets, half-hidden in "Scarborough Fair."

(NOTE: Simon wrote many other songs that did not make it on to albums during his years with Garfunkel. We will deal with those after the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" album, but before Simon's post-Garfunkel work. I made an exception for "The Side of a Hill" because it was unfair to discuss "Canticle" without it.)

Next Song: Patterns


  1. What do you make of the combination of Canticle with Scarborough Fair? Does it make the anti-war message stronger?

  2. I think it makes the Canticle very hard to hear and understand. And I think that it makes S. Fair, already a sardonic song, mistaken even more for a love song. The interweaving melodies sure are pretty, though!

  3. For me Simon Garfunkel s Scarborough fair speaks to the wars death and destruction being ignored or out of mind and given little thought by a self centered and demanding singer. In other words many focus on their own desires and do not see, hear or feel the horror and pain brought to others. Using the traditional old song suggest little has changed. The beautiful melody disguises the message making the listener unaware of the sad message just like those ignoring the horror of war. If the listener try it becomes possible to become aware. Just my opinion as to how it affects me.

  4. oldgoldtop-- Thanks for your comment. Obviously, Simon was fond of Side of a Hill and wanted to preserve it somewhere. This way, when the antique Scarborough Fair was performed, there was still some of him in it, even though it wasn't "his" song.

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  6. Yelena-- пожалуйста!
    (I looked up the Russian spelling, but I knew how to pronounce it before; I dated a Russian girl briefly.)