Part of the reason this song is so resonant, even today, is its message of unwavering friendship. It never mentions the word "love," even if it is to a "silvergirl," so it is not necessarily a "love song" in the usual sense.
And while there are mountains of love songs, there are very few songs about friendships: "Thank You for Being a Friend" (written by Andrew Gold decades before it became the Golden Girls theme song)... "Friendship" from the musical Anything Goes... and the now-obscure "You're a Friend of Mine," a duet between Jackson Browne and Clarence Clemmons (yes, Springsteen's late saxophonist).
At the level of "Bridge" are Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," and Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up." A song that should be as well known is Shawn Colvin's "Climb On (a Back That's Strong), and then there is Randy Newman's "You Got a Friend in Me." Still, compared to the endless supply of love songs, that's barely an album's worth of material.
One thing that many of these songs share is a religious, even Gospel, feeling. "Bridge," which Simon often performs with Gospel groups doing harmony, is definitely influenced by Gospel music, as is the turn of phrase "lay me down." "Stand" and "Lean" are pretty much Gospel songs as they are. And Carole King explained that her song was what she hoped God would sing to her. There is something holy about friendships that "Bridge" really gets.
Simon was listening to a great deal of Gospel music around this time. A line sung by Rev. Claude Jeter (later heard on "Take Me to the Mardi Gras") struck Simon. The song was "Mary, Don't You Weep," and Jeter sang, "I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in My Name." So that's where the "bridge over... water" comes from.
Another thing the songs have in common is straight-forward language. A bridge spanning turbulent waters is a powerful image, but Simon presents it in very simple words. This is not "a still-life watercolor of a hour-late afternoon." It's a bridge, as elegant as one in a Monet, yet as magnificent as the Golden Gate. And the water is "troubled," a very emotional idea.
The lyrics here are almost too simple. Simon uncharacteristically uses cliched expressions like "down and out," "on the street," "I'm on your side," and "when times get rough." It's a shame, because right next to these, Simon presents turns of phrase that are just as basic in their word choice, yet more innovative-- "feeling small" (a size, not an emotion), "when evening falls so hard (a pun, yet a poignant one)-- that have just as much emotional impact. More, in fact, for being new.
For some reason, these friendship songs tend to be about supporting friends in bad times, not celebrating good ones together. "Bridge" is very much a song of support--what else is a "bridge" but something that supports you until you reach the other side of an obstacle?
The third verse-- when the other instruments join the piano-- is about that other side. It is time for the beleaguered friend "to shine," like "silver"... and so will her "dreams." Since she will be shining in the spotlight, he won't be standing beside her and sharing it, but positioned "behind," still in support mode.
One irony of the song is that it is almost entirely performed by Garfunkel, and it is (aside from "Emily") his most beautiful performance. For one member of a duo to sing a song by the other is as image of support as powerful as the central one in this piece; imagine a song about friendship called "I Will Always Sing Your Song." Yet Simon and Garfunkel have one of the most infamously contentious friendships in all of celebrity-dom.
Among his best, most-acclaimed songs, "Sounds of Silence," "Mrs. Robinson," and "Call Me Al," show a sophisiciated, cynical side of Simon, and even "Scarborough Fair" has a hidden sarcasm, as we have seen. "The Boxer," which we are yet to discuss, is about dealing with adversity, and "Homeward Bound" and "Graceland" are about a longing that may prove unfulfilled. Of all the songs vying for the position of Simon's magnum opus, only "Bridge" has a message of pure hope.
Once, on Saturday Night Live, Simon jokingly discussed his image of being "Mr. Alienation." But how could anyone think of him in those terms while remembering that he wrote this, the greatest ode to friendship?
"Bridge" remains one of the most important songs in all of popular music, perhaps in all of music history. It is one of the few songs receiving many millions of airplays. It is one of the most covered songs in music history, with versions by everyone from Elvis to Aretha.
The song and its album won six Grammys. The album as a whole won Album of the Year and Grammys for its arrangements--shared by S&G and others-- and engineering. The song won Record of the Year (to Simon and Garfunkel, for their performing and producing it), and both "Contemporary Pop Song" and just plain Song of the Year (to Simon, for writing it). The song is also in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Moreover, the song is now a cultural landmark. Simon has performed "Bridge" at times of healing from national crisis. More recently, it was performed to raise money for relief from the Haiti earthquake.
Next Song: El Condor Pasa (If I Could)