Simon released this song on his 1965 solo album Songbook, and it does not appear on any of the five official S&G releases. So, it's a Simon solo number, yes?
Well, it also appears on several S&G compilations, box sets, and concert albums, sung as a duet. And since all of the other material on Songbook appears on one of these five albums, and since it was written when Simon was part of the duo, we'll cover it here.
Thematically and historically, it fits here as well. It is clearly a 1960s protest song, along the lines of "He Was My Brother."
The story is a sadly common one, a church burning. Three "hooded men," evidently KKK members, set a black church ablaze at night. The devastation is contrasted with the hopeful prayers that were being said their earlier that day: "I won't be a slave anymore."
But while the church burns, the fire itself prays: "You can burn down my churches/ But I shall be free."
I have no proof of this, but I have a theory that this imagery was at least in part taken from the Jewish High Holiday service. The prayers on Yom Kippur include the story of the Ten Martyrs. These were ten Torah scholars tortured to death by the Romans for disobeying the order to stop teaching Jewish law; the text details the graphic horror of their tortures. The Chabad website puts the story in context and provides some background information on each of the martyrs:
"One of the martyrs was Rabbi Chananya ben [son of] Teradyon... one of the preeminent sages of his day, yet more than anything he was known as a man with an overriding concern for the poor. His efforts to raise funds on their behalf are legendary...
In the end, he too became a victim of Roman savagery. Before they burned him at the stake, the Romans wrapped his body in a Torah scroll and packed tufts of water-soaked wool around his heart to delay his death and prolong the suffering...
...In his final moments [he] continued to embody the triumph of a noble soul. His final words to his disciples were, 'I see the parchment [of the scroll] burning, but the letters themselves are flying up to Heaven'."
The text in the prayerbook continues that the executioner was so moved that he removed the wool, fanned the flames to hasten the end of the scholar's suffering... and jumped into the blaze himself.
While the imagery is only similar, we know that even the most uninvolved Jews tend to attend Yom Kippur services. Simon is highly likely to have been familiar with this story-- one of religious/racial persecution, with a book-burning image.
As far as the rest of the lyrics, they are fairly self-explanatory. Two images stand out, however. One is the comparison of flame's shape with that of hands placed together in prayer. Both rounded at the bottom and tapered at the top, like a teardrop, the shapes are undeniably similar. We have all seen both shapes our whole lives, but it takes the eye of a poet to connect them.
The other is "the ashes of a Bible." As he later would in "Keep the Customer Satisfied"-- with the lines "I been slandered, libeled/ I heard words I never heard in the Bible"-- Simon contrasts the proclaimed piety of many Bible-thumpers with the horrible things they actually, hypocritically, do.
Church burnings are, sadly, not a thing of the past. As recently as 2006, there was a rash of church burnings in the South. And houses of worship of all faiths continue to be bombed and desecrated to this day. [Note: a French synagogue was firebombed in 2014.] Like this song said in 1965, "The future is now."
Next Song: Red Rubber Ball