Music Friday: Paul Simon Reveals Meaning of ‘Silver Girl’ in the Classic ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’

Welcome to Music Friday when we bring you great songs with jewelry, gemstones or precious metals in the lyrics or title. Today, we focus on the curious precious metal reference in 1970’s “Bridge Over Trouble Water,” a classic tune by Simon & Garfunkel that won five Grammy Awards and was ranked #48 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

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Composed by Paul Simon and performed as a solo by Art Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a song about providing comfort for someone in need. The much-debated third verse starts like this: “Sail on silver girl / Sail on by / Your time has come to shine / All your dreams are on their way.”

Some fans and critics had speculated that “silver girl” might be a reference to a needle and that the song was really about heroin use. But Simon eventually set the record straight when he revealed that the silver line is actually an innocent inside joke aimed at his first wife, Peggy Harper. Simon started calling her “Silver Girl” after she noticed her first silver-grey hairs. She was barely 30 at the time and the grey hairs made her very upset.

Simon originally intended “Bridge” to be a simple two-verse gospel hymn with a guitar accompaniment. The “silver girl” third verse was added at the recording studio after Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee insisted that the song needed a “bigger” sound at the end.

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Simon wrote the third verse on the fly and Halee arranged for the song’s famous orchestral crescendo. The guitar was traded in for a piano to better support Garfunkel’s falsetto, and instead of singing the song together, Simon insisted that Garfunkel perform the song alone.

Later in his career, Simon admitted he had second thoughts about that decision. “Many times I’m sorry I didn’t do it,” he said. Simon would hear the rousing ovations and think, “That’s my song, man.”

When Clive Davis at Columbia Records heard “Bridge” for the first time, he told Simon that it was destined to be a monster hit. He pegged it as the title track of Simon & Garfunkel’s fifth studio album and its lead single.

Garfunkel’s interpretation of Simon’s vision was a mind blowing success, as “Bridge” went on to sell six million copies and dominate the 1971 Grammy Awards, including a win for Song of the Year. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Simon & Garfunkel were probably thrilled when musical powerhouses Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin both covered the song.

At the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010, on the 40th anniversary of the release of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Garfunkel revealed how much he still loves to perform the song.

“Well, here we are, years later, I’m still singing it from town to town, and it’s completely alive and fresh to me,” he said. “There is nothing dated, or any feeling of the past. I love doing it. Thank the Lord the feeling — the goose bumps — constantly checks in every time I do it.”

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Bridge Over Troubled Water was the last album Simon & Garfunkel released before they split up. It sold an amazing 25 million copies and has been regarded as one of the best albums, both commercially and artistically, of all time.

Despite the breakup, the famous singing duo has thrilled fans with a number of high-profile reunions over the years. A particularly inspiring one was a free concert in New York’s Central Park in 1981 — an event seen live by 500,000 people. The resulting album and cable-TV special on HBO generated funds to renovate the park. Today’s clip is from that show. The lyrics are below if you’d like to sing along…

“Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Written by Paul Simon. Performed by Art Garfunkel.

When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all (all)
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you (ooo)
I’ll take your part, oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind

Credit: Getty Images, YouTube screen capture, Simon & Garfunkel album cover.

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