Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Meaning of the Song "Sounds of Silence"

During the years when I lived in Seward, 1960-1968, I was interested primarily in folk music (Kingston Trio, the Limelighters, Smothers Brothers, etc.) and surfing music (the Beach Boys). I bought records to listen to such music. I did not listen to Top-40 radio stations, so I was oblivious to much current music. 

My friend Jim Hardt listened to the radio stations and even recorded his favorite songs on a big-reel tape recorder that he kept in his bedroom. Jim introduced me to the music of Simon and Garfunkel, telling me they were really great. This must have been in 1965-1966, when I was in eighth grade, because that was the year when their song "Sounds of Silence" became their first big hit. 

One reason I liked the song was that it included a religious element, mentioning "bowing and praying" and "the neon god" and "the words of the prophets". In general, the lyrics were pleasingly poetic, but incomprehensible. Here are the entire lyrics.  
Hello, darkness, my old friend.
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence.  
In restless dreams I walked alone --
Narrow streets of cobblestone,
B'neath the halo of a street lamp.
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night and touched the sound of silence.  
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more --
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare disturb the sound of silence. 
"Fools" said I, "You do not know.
"Silence like a cancer grows.
"Hear my words that I might teach you,
"Take my arms that I might reach to you."  
But my words like silent raindrops fell,
And echoed in the wells of silence. 
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made. 
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming. 
And the sign said: 
"The words of the prophets
"Are written on the subway walls
"And tenement halls
"And whispered in the sounds of silence."

About six years ago, I decided to develop my own interpretation of the song. I read a couple of biographies of Paul Simon and studied his lyrical evolution. I found that this song's lyrics are much more religious -- in particular, more Christian -- than most people appreciate. Below, I will share with you my interpretation of Paul Simon's lyrics in the song "Sounds of Silence".  


Paul Simon was born in 1941 into an observant Jewish family. Especially his mother was rather strict about adhering to Jewish teachings and customs. Paul grew up in a solidly Jewish neighborhood in Queens, New York. He once remarked that during the first part of his boyhood he thought that everyone in America was Jewish. (I obtained this information mostly from Laura Jackson's biography Paul Simon.)

Paul's father was a professional musician, and Paul too decided to become a professional musician while he still was a boy. When he was 14 years old, in about 1955, he began to write music and lyrics ambitiously. From that young age he committed himself to developing a career in the music business. He, accompanied by his friend Art Garfunkel, made his first record when he was 16 years old, in 1957. The song, titled "Hey, Schoolgirl," reached the 49th position in the popularity charts. 

Pressured by his family to attend college, Paul enrolled in Queens College and majored in English literature. He studied poetry in an intelligent manner and began to write lyrics that were far more intellectual than "Hey, Schoolgirl".

During Simon's college years, many Jewish-Americans of college age became involved actively in the Civil Rights movement for African-Americans. Jewish-Americans had been affected by the mass murders of Jews in Europe during World War Two, less than 20 years previously, and Jewish-Americans felt that they too, like African-Americans, were a second-class minority in the United States. 

While attending Queens College, Paul Simon was a classmate and personal friend of Andrew Goodman, who became an active participant in the Civil Rights movement. After graduating from Queens, in the summer of 1964, Goodman was murdered in Mississippi while helping African-Americans register to vote. (Garfunkel did not attend Queens College, but he too knew Goodman.) 

Already before Goodman was murdered, Simon had become impressed positively by the inspirational and effective role that Christian churches played among African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement. As a musician, Simon was influenced in particular by the role that Gospel music played. 

Furthermore, Simon obviously was impressed positively by the Christian religion itself. He apparently perceived it to be much more dynamic and universal than his own Jewish religion, which seemed stagnant and isolated. His infatuation with Christian ideas and music probably was to some extent also an act of adolescent rebellion, a means to antagonize and to declare his independence from his Jewish parents and neighbors. 


During Simon's senior year of college, President John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. During the following weeks he began to write the song that became "The Sounds of Silence." He essentially finished the song in February 1964, and then he and Garfunkel recorded it in a studio on March 17, 1964, near the end of his senior year. 

As I will argue below, the song describes God's difficulties in communicating through His prophets to human beings. The prophets are not recognized by humans, who reject real prophets and instead turn to false prophets. God therefore must use various clever methods of communicating through his real prophets. 

Simon did not think that President Kennedy was such a prophet. Rather, Simon apparently felt that the assassination aggravated an already existing crisis of humanity. The aggravated crisis made it even more urgent that humanity try to recognize and heed real prophets of God in order to be saved. 

After graduating, Simon moved (alone, without Garfunkel) to England, where he spent the summer of 1964. During that summer he lived platonically with a woman named Judith Piepe, who was a European Jew who had converted to Christianity and become a full-time social worker for her church. This relationship is additional evidence indicating that Simon himself had drifted from the Jewish religion far into the Christian religion during this period of his life. 


It was during this same summer of 1964 -- on June 21,1964, that Simon's friend Goodman was murdered in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan while participating in the Civil Rights movement. 

It seems to me that the news of this murder prompted both Simon and Garfunkel to re-affirm their own Jewish identities. Until then, they had performed and recorded as musicians with non-Jewish names. They had called themselves Paul Kane and Artie Garr, because they felt their real Jewish family names might be less marketable. When their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, was issued on October 19, 1964, the duo had decided to identify themselves for the first time and forever afterwards by their real, Jewish names -- Simon and Garfunkel.,_3_A.M.,_3_A.M
The cover of the first, 1964, album of Simon and Garfunkel,
titled Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.
Although the duo identified themselves now by their real Jewish names, the album as a whole was saturated with Christian songs and themes. Probably most of the two young singers' Jewish families and friends were appalled by the album's contents. 

Most of the songs in this album revolved around Paul Simon's thinking that the Earth's population was approaching a mortal crisis but that God still would save those people who would listen to the warnings of contemporary prophets. Jesus Christ had been an example of such a prophet who had not been heeded in his own time but who nevertheless still did and would bring salvation to those people who did or would heed him. 

That theme, expressed variously in most of the album's songs, is the context for understanding the song "Sounds of Silence", which is the album's central song -- the sixth of the album's twelve songs. Before I explain the one song "Sounds of Silence", I will summarize all the surrounding songs, which as a whole coherently reflect Simon's blatantly Christian attitude when he wrote that one, central, poetic song. 


The album's first song is "You Can Tell the World" and its lyrics are as follows:
Well you can tell the world about this;
You can tell the nation about that.
Tell 'em what the Master has done,
Tell 'em that the Gospel has come,
Tell 'em that the victory's been won. 
He brought joy, joy, joy, joy, joy, joy
Into my heart. 
Well my Lord spoke, he spoke so well --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Talked about the flames that burn in Hell --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Now my Lord spoke, he spoke so well --
Yes he did, yes, he did. 
Talked about the children of Israel --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
He brought joy, joy, joy into my heart. 
(repeat 1st verse) 
Well my Lord spoke, he spoke to me --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Talkin' about a man from Galilee -- --
Yes he did, yes he did.  
My Lord spoke, he spoke to me --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Talkin' about a man from Galilee --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
He brought joy joy, joy
Into my heart. 
(repeat 1st verse) 
Well I don't know but I've been told --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Streets of heaven are paved with gold --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Now the Jordan River is chilly and wide --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
I got a home on the other side --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
He brought joy, joy, joy
Into my heart.
The album begins with this blatantly Christian song, but it is a song that acknowledges that Jesus spoke well about the children of Israel -- about the Jews. 


The album's second song was "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream", and here are its lyrics:
Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd ever dreamed before.
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war. 
I dreamed I saw a mighty room,
Filled with women and men,
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again. 
And when the paper was all signed
And a million copies made,
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed. 
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing 'round and 'round,
While swords and guns and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground. 
Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd never dreamed before.
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war.
This song implies that an agreement for universal disarmament would require God's intervention. After such an agreement is made, all the participants will join hands and bow their heads and pray in gratitude, because God's help would be necessary for the agreement to happen. 


The album's third song was "Bleecker Street", and here are its lyrics:
Fog's rolling in off the East River bank --
Like a shroud it covers Bleecker Street --
Fills the alleys where men sleep --
Hides the shepherd from the sheep. 
Voices leaking from a sad cafe --
Smiling faces try to understand --
I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand
On Bleecker Street. 
A poet reads his crooked rhyme --
Holy, holy is his sacrament --
Thirty dollars pays your rent --
On Bleecker Street. 
I head a church bell softly chime,
In a melody sustaining. 
It's a long road to Caanan,
On Bleecker Street, Bleecker Street 
Bleecker Street is the main street running through Greeewich Village in New York City. This neighborhood was a home and a performing venue for many people involved in American folk music, including Paul Simon. 

The people (i.e. sheep) who live and perform in this neighborhood are separated from Jesus Christ (i.e. the Shepherd) by a fog. The people there fail to really communicate and make contact with each other. 

The poetry readings in Greenwich Village's night clubs are a false sacrament. The poet earns 30 dollars, just as Judas Iscariat earned 30 gold coins for betraying Jesus. 

Bleecker Street is far from Caanan (from the Promised Land, from Heaven), because the people there do not have a clear (unfogged) relationship with Jesus. 


The album's fourth song was "Sparrow" and here are its lyrics:
Who will love a little Sparrow?
Who's traveled far and cries for rest? 
"Not I," said the Oak Tree.
"I won't share my branches with no sparrow's nest,
"And my blanket of leaves won't warm her cold breast." 
Who will love a little Sparrow
And who will speak a kindly word? 
"Not I," said the Swan.
"The entire idea is utterly absurd,
"I'd be laughed at and scorned if the other Swans heard." 
Who will take pity in his heart,
And who will feed a starving sparrow? 
"Not I," said the Golden Wheat.
"I would if I could but I cannot I know,
"I need all my grain to prosper and grow." 
Who will love a little Sparrow?
Will no one write her eulogy? 
"I will," said the Earth.
"For all I've created returns unto me,
"From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be."
The above song refers to Jesus' saying in Matthew 10:29-31:
Not one sparrow (What do they cost? Two for a penny?) can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. .... So don't worrry! You are more valuable to Him than many sparrows! 
The Earth (i.e. God) that created the sparrow will provide love and a resting place to the sparrow.
The song's last line refers to a phrase in the Christian funeral service in The Book of Common Prayer:
Earth to earth,
Ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust.

The album's fifth song was "Benedictus", a hymn sung in Latin. In translation, the lyrics are a repetition of the words: 
Blessed is he who comes in name of Lord.
Hossana in the highest.

The album's sixth song was "Sounds of Silence." This is the central of the album's 12 songs.


The album's seventh song was "He Was My Brother". 
He was my brother --
Five years older than I.
He was my brother --
Twenty-three years old the day he died. 
Freedom rider --
They cursed my brother to his face.
Go home outsider --
This town's gonna be your burying place. 
He was singing on his knees --
An angry mob trailed along.
They shot my brother dead --
Because he hated what was wrong. 
He was my brother --
Tears can't bring him back to me.
He was my brother --
And he died so his brothers could be free.
This song is about Andrew Goodman, Simon's Jewish-American friend who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in June 1964. When someone like Goodman (or Jesus) dies as a martyr, the death can bring salvation to other people. 


The album's eighth song was "Peggy-O". 
As we marched down to Faneri-o
As we marched down to Faneri-o
Our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove
And they called her name, pretty Peggy-o. 
Come a-running down the stairs, pretty Peggy-o
Come a-running down the stairs, pretty Peggy-o
Come a-running down the stairs, combing back
Your yellow hair. 
You're the prettiest little girl I've ever seen-o
In a carriage you will ride, pretty Peggy-o
In a carriage you will ride, pretty Peggy-o
In a carriage you will ride, with your true love by your side
As far as any maiden in the ar-e-o. 
What will your mother say, pretty Peggy-o?
What will your mother say, pretty Peggy-o?
What will your mother say, when she finds you've gone away
To places far and strange, to Faneri-o? 
If ever I return, pretty Peggy-o
If ever I return, pretty Peggy-o
If ever I return, all your cities I will burn
Destroying all the ladies in the ar-e-o
Destroying all the ladies in the ar-e-o 
This song is a variation of a traditional Scottish song about a soldier who meets and falls in love with a young woman but then goes away to war, where he is killed. 

Paul Simon's version of the song is quite different. Here, the young woman runs away with the soldier, who intends to return to the town later to kill the rest of the town's women. 

In the context of the album's other songs, I interpret this song as referring to an angry God, imposing vengeance on the majority of people who ignore His prophets' warnings. Peggy alone followed the soldier from the town, and all the rest of the women who failed to follow were destroyed when the soldier returned.

Likewise, those who fail to follow Jesus will be punished when God returns at the end of the world. 


The album's ninth song was "Go Tell It On the Mountain", and here are its lyrics:
Go tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere. 
Go tell it on the mountain --
Jesus Christ is born. 
Down in the lonely manger,
The humble Christ was born,
And God sent salvation
That blessed Christmas morn. 
(repeat chorus) 
While shepherds kept their watch
O'er silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens
There shown a holy light.
This is a traditional Christmas song -- one of hundreds. Why did Simon, a Jew, select it for his album? 

I will suggest later in this article that Simon liked this song because it refers to a communication about God's plans and because this communication takes place on a mountain. This mountain image resonates with a story from the life of Elijah the prophet. 


The album's tenth song was "The Sun Is Burning", which was about a nuclear war causing an apocalyptic end of the world. This song's lyrics were as follows:
The sun is burning in the sky.
Strands of clouds go slowly drifting by.
In the park the lazy breeze
Are joining in the flowers, among the trees,
And the sun burns in the sky. 
Now the sun is in the West.
Little kids go home to take their rest,
And the couples in the park
Are holdin' hands and waitin' for the dark,
And the sun is in the West. 
Now the sun is sinking low.
Children, playing, know it's time to go.
High above a spot appears.
A little blossom blooms and then draws near,
And the sun is sinking low. 
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,
And the sun has come to Earth. 
Now the sun has disappeared.
All is darkness, anger, pain and fear.
Twisted, sightless wrecks of men
Go groping on their knees and cry in pain,
And the sun has disappeared.
Humanity is threatened with destruction by nuclear weapons, and therefore humanity must learn to recognize and heed the prophets that God sends. 


The album's eleventh song was Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changing'". The song's second line mocks pundits, who pretend to prophesize. They are merely guessing where life's roulette wheel will stop the next time.
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen,
And keep your eyes wide.
The chance won't come again. 
And don't speak too soon,
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no telling who
That it's naming. 
For the loser now
Will be later to win.
For the times,
They are a-changing.
In the album, this is one of two songs (the other is "Sounds of Silence") that mention prophets explicitly. 

In this song, people pretending to be prophets are told to open their eyes to see the signs right now. But they should not speak until they understand God's full message (because the wheel's still in spin). The correct message might be communicated from God by someone who seems to be a loser in life now. 


The album's twelfth song, the final and title song, is "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM". 
I can hear the soft breathing of the girl that I love,
As she lies here beside me asleep with the night,
And her hair, in a fine mist floats on my pillow,
Reflecting the glow of the winter moonlight. 
She is soft, she is warm, but my heart remains heavy,
And I watch as her breasts gently rise, gently fall --
For I know with the first light of dawn I'll be leaving,
And tonight will be all I have left to recall.  
Oh, what have I done? why have I done it?
I've committed a crime; I've broken the law.
For twenty-five dollars and pieces of silver,
I held up and robbed a hard liquor store. 
My life seems unreal -- my crime an illusion --
A scene badly written in which I must play.
Yet I know as I gaze at my young love beside me,
The morning is just a few hours away. 
The song depicts a person who feels regret because he has committed a robbery and so now must deal with the terrible consequences, which include the loss of love. He will try to escape, but probably he will be caught and imprisoned. 

I speculate that Simon perhaps began writing the song as a meditation on the Christian image of "a thief in the night." The Apostle Paul described this idea as follows:
That day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. 
When people are saying, "All is well, everything is quiet and peaceful" --
-- then all of a sudden, disaster will fall upon them as suddenly as a woman's birth pains begin when her child is born. And these people will not be able to get away anywhere. There will be no place to hide. .... 
(I Thessalonians 5:2-3; see also Luke 12:39-4)
In the song's final form, this possible original meaning is no longer apparent. In the context of the album's other songs, however, I think Simon perhaps began composing the lyrics as a meditation on the Christian apocalyptic allusion to a thief in the night. 


In a nutshell, the album Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m., was a blatantly Christian album, written during a profoundly Christian period of Paul Simon's life. That is the context of Simon's song "Sounds of Silence". 

Simon was obsessed with his idea that God was trying to communicate, by means of his modern prophets, to human beings that they should avert nuclear war. Simon sang that human beings should remember God's previous attempt to communicate to them by means of Jesus Christ. 


After Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel finished recording their first album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM in mid-1964,they broke up as a duo, and Simon moved to England. Simon moved into a home owned by a Jewish woman who had converted to Christianity and who worked as a full-time church worker.

Only a couple thousand copies of the album were purchased initially by the public, but the song "The Sound of Silence" was released as a single, and during the last half of 1965 this single gradually moved upward in the popularity charts and reached the Number 1 position on New Years Day 1966. When Simon heard that news, he immediately returned to the USA and re-joined Garfunkel as a duo.

In 1966 the duo looked like this ....

The cover of the 1966 album
We've got a groovey thing goin'
of Simon and Garfukel
... and sounded like this:

The 1966 album, titled Sounds of Silence, featured that same song -- still a huge hit -- but otherwise this new album differed from the first album. Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.. The new, 1966, album was a moderate success, reaching Position 30 in the popularity charts. 

In October 1966 the duo released a new album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, which became a huge album hit. 

In December 1967 the movie The Graduate, with its soundtrack consisting almost entirely of songs of Simon and Garfunkel, began appearing in the theaters, and the movie's sound track was issued as an album, titled The Graduate, in January 1968. 

Although two previous albums had included the song "The Sounds of Silence", the The Graduate soundtrack album is the first album that included the song and that was purchased by a major portion of the public. This album's version of the song was the version that has become most familiar to the public, during and after the year 1968. 

During the summer of 1968, I left Nebraska and moved to Seward. During that key year and that personal move of mine, the song "Sounds of Silence" became a really gargantuan hit in the USA's popular-music musicology. 


By that time, however, Simon had evolved personally beyond the infatuation with the Christian religion that he had experienced during late 1963 and early 1964, when he had written the song. American society too had moved beyond that same period, when folk music and Gospel music had enjoyed an unusually high popularity. By the time when most people became familiar with the song -- during and after 1968-- they perceived the song almost entirely as a secular song. 

Even when fans of Simon and Garfunkel belatedly purchased the album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM and heard the album's surprisingly Christian themes, they perceived it as a secular song, because they already had become acquainted with the song as a single or on one or both of the two secular albums -- on The Sounds of Silence or on The Graduate


Since Simon had grown up in a Jewish family in a Jewish neighborhood, he certainly was familiar with the story of the Jewish religion's major prophet Elijah. 

When some Jewish prophets protested against idolatry practiced by their country's aristocracy, Queen Jezebel ordered those prophets to be murdered. Protesting against that order, Elijah stepped forward to participate in a contest against 450 priests of Baal. This contest ended with Elijah murdering all 450 of the priests of Baal. This massacre sparked a religious war, and Elijah fled from Israel, fearing he would be killed.

Elijah fled without any particular destination. At one point, however, an angel appeared to him and gave him some food and water and directed him to travel much further, to Mount Horeb. There, on the mountain top, Elijah waited for divine guidance about what he should do. Elijah tried to understand the divine guidance unsuccessfully in a windstorm, in an earthquake and in a fire storm. Ultimately, however, he understood it only from a slight breeze -- "a gentle whisper" -- in the mountain top's thin air.

These events are told in 1 Kings 19: 8-14:
Then Elijah got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, where he lived in a cave. 
But the Lord said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 
"He replied, "I have worked very hard for the Lord god of the heavens; but the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you and torn down your altars and killed your prophets, and only I am left; and now they are trying to kill me too." 
"Go out and stand before Me on the mountain," the Lord told Elijah. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by,and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain; it was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. 
After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 
And after the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. 
And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his scarf and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  
And a voice said, "Why are you here, Elijah?" 
He replied again, "I have been working very hard for the Lord God of the armies of heaven, but the people have broken their covenant and have torn down your altars; they have killed every one of your prophets except me; and now they are trying to kill me too." 
Then the Lord told him, "Go back .... there are 7,000 men in Israel who have never bowed to Baal"
Long List of Thanks, painted by Frank Ordaz
Elijah then returned to Israel and led an uprising that ended with the deaths of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, thus saving Israel from the establishment of the Baal religion. 


I speculate that Simon began writing the song "Sounds of Silence" as a meditation on this story about the prophet Elijah. Simon was concerned about the threat of nuclear war, and he dreamed of nuclear disarmament, but he was not a pacifist. After President Kennedy was assassinated, Simon's concerns about nuclear war grew, and he came to believe that humanity had to learn to recognize and heed the prophets that God would send to save humanity from its predicament. Such prophets might be quiet, humble people who spoke softly but wisely. 

That was Simon's primary thinking during that young period of his life, when he was about 22 years old. Simon began with the story the Elijah story that he knew from his own Jewish uprising -- the story about how God had communicated to Elijah effectively in a whisper.  When Elijah learned to appreciate and understand this quiet, divine guidance, then he proceeded to reform his idolatrous society. 

During this same period of late 1963 and 1964, Simon was becoming infatuated also with the Christian churches of the African-Americans who were developing their own effective Civil Rights Movement. In that religion, the prophet was Jesus Christ, and in that movement the most effective method of communicating was joyous Gospel music. 

It was the combination of those ideas that developed into the album Wednesday Night, 3 AM


Let us know focus on the song "Sounds of Silence", which is structured like the Elijah story. 

* The poet is like Elijah, seeking divine guidance.

* The dream is like the angel, who sent Elijah to Mount Horeb.

* The street light is like God on Mount Horeb.

It begins with the poet walking outside in the dark. He had been inside sleeping, but a dream had prompted him to get up and go outside. The poet is seeking divine guidance that his angel dream has promised. He has sought this divine guidance before, listening for divine words spoken aloud. Instead, he is surrounded by mere silence.   
Hello, darkness, my old friend.
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence.  
The angel dream has directed the lone poet to a street light, which emits a halo. The street light is like Mount Horeb, with its divine summit. 
In restless dreams I walked alone --
Narrow streets of cobblestone,
B'neath the halo of a street lamp.
Suddenly, the street light emits a flash of neon light, which prompts the poet to focus on the surrounding silence, which will be the medium for the divine guidance.  
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night and touched the sound of silence.  
Now, the poet understands that the silence itself is the divine guidance. The silence illustrates to the poet that human beings do not communicate with each other effectively.  
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more --
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare disturb the sound of silence. 
The poet himself has been failing to communicate or to act effectively. The poet has been trying to teach and embrace others, who do not perceive his efforts.
"Fools" said I, "You do not know.
"Silence like a cancer grows.
"Hear my words that I might teach you,
"Take my arms that I might reach to you." 
But my words like silent raindrops fell,
And echoed in the wells of silence. 
Instead of listening to true prophets, people are worshiping false idols. 
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made. 
Ironically, the true prophets might be people who have low stations in life -- people living in tenement apartments and traveling in the subways. The true prophets might not speak loudly or even aloud. Ultimately, hey might simply write graffiti on walls. 
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming. 
And the sign said: 
"The words of the prophets
"Are written on the subway walls
"And tenement halls
"And whispered in the sounds of silence."

At that time in his life, Simon apparently felt that the way to find such prophets might be through the Christian churches of the kind that were leading the Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans. That is the answer toward which Simon points in the other songs of his first album Wednesday Night, 3 AM.

After Simon and Garfunkel finished recording this song, their Jewish friend Andrew Goodman was murdered in June 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan and immediately became a national hero of the Civil Rights movement. This event caused them to re-appreciate with clarity and pride their own Jewish religion and its own ability to inspire Jews to act courageously and effectively. Simon and Garfunkel immediately wrote the song "He Was My Brother" and added it to the album, which was issued in October 1964. 

And when the album was issued, the duo was no longer named Paul Kane and Artie Garr, but rather Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Raking and Burning Leaves

Every fall in Seward, one of the family duties was to rake leaves.

Raking leaves at your own family's house was boring and unpaid, but one exciting reward was to watch and smell the leaves burning.

The smell of burning leaves was a familiar pleasure back in those years. I almost have forgotten the smell, though, because the burning of leaves is illegal in all the places where I've lived since I left Seward.

You wanna hear something funny, Daddy?
Grandma said they used to just burn their
leaves instead of puttin' them in trash bags.
Raking leaves for other families was a good way to earn some money. I used to rake the leaves for the Bickels -- an elderly couple -- every year, and I would earn a whole $5 for about five hours of work. Because I earned so much money, such a day of raking was very happy for me, even though I got a lot of blisters on my hands. My Dad was able to arrange this job for me, because our Sylwester family was related to the Bickel family.

I never got to set the leaves on fire. Only the big kids or adults did that. I remember vaguely that some gasoline was poured all over the leaves, and then a lit match was thrown onto the pile. While the leaves burned, we kids would use big sticks to stir the leaves, to keep the fire going.

Burning a pile of leaves was a good occasion to roast and eat marshmallows.

Here's a photograph of some teenage boy proudly enjoying the burning of a small pile of leaves in his back yard.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The 1964 Presidential Election

Recently I read a book titled A Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater's Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement, written by J. William Middendorf II, who served as Goldwater's campaign treasurer during 1963-1964 and as the Republican National Committee's treasurer during the following four years.

Reading this book reminded me about my own childhood experiences of watching presidential politics.

My first political memories are about President John Kennedy's press conferences. When I was in second grade, our family lived in Middle Creek, which was a rural area outside of Seward. We lived next to a church and a one-room school, and I attended that school.  I wrote about that period of my life in this previous article of this blog.

Since we did not have any neighbors there, I did not have any friends to play with, and so I would just go into our home after school and watch television. The usual television programming that I remember was old Three Stooges films, which I enjoyed watching. Sometimes, however, the usual programming was preempted because President Kennedy was giving a press conference. At first I was annoyed by these preemptions, but eventually I came to enjoy watching Kennedy, because he seemed to be funny. I did not understand the humor, but I could see that he made the journalists laugh. My Mom would watch and laugh too.

Here is a video collage of funny moments in Kennedy's press conferences.

My next political memory after that was the assassination of President Kennedy, which occurred in 1963, when I was in sixth grade.

Then my next political memory was the presidential campaign of 1964. The two parties' political conventions took place during that summer, when I was between my sixth and seventh grades. The Republican convention was during July 13-16, and the Democrat convention was during August 24-27. Since those months were summer vacation, I was able to spend a lot of time watching the conventions on television during the days and evenings.

The Republican convention was especially interesting, because there was a dramatic struggle within the Republican Party. The common wisdom was that Goldwater was an extremist taking over the party, and this take-over was being resisted heroically by the party's wise moderates. The main two moderates were New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania Governor Bill Scranton.

I favored Scranton. I did not understand the political issues, but I liked the way he looked and talked. I think my parents like Scranton. For sure, they did not like Goldwater.

I did not like the way Rockefeller looked and talked. I kind of liked the way Goldwater looked and talked, but I understood that he was a villain. Since I did not understand the politics, my opinions were just impressionistic.

Here is a video of Scranton's campaign. Much of it is silent, but there are parts with audio of him speaking.

When I look at this video now, I don't experience the same favorable impressions about him. At that time, though, I liked Scranton so much that I even cried when the count of delegates during the convention gave Goldwater the majority.

Scranton came to the convention with 214 delegates, and Rockefeller came with 114, but Goldwater came with 883. Nevertheless, I hoped that Scranton would win by an upset because all the delegates would see what a great guy he was.

Here is a video showing some of the television coverage of the 1964 Republican convention. Watching this when I was 11 years old was very interesting, entertaining and educational.

The Democrat convention in August was not so interesting, because President Lyndon Johnson did not have to fight against any significant opposition within his own party.

Reading the book A Glorious Disaster, I was reminded that one of the biggest issues during the 1964 election was the use of tactical nuclear weapons. At some point, Goldwater had remarked that if the USA got into a war in Europe or Vietnam, then he would allow the military theater commander to use small nuclear weapons in some circumstances. The Democrats made a huge deal about this remark, giving the impression that any lieutenant colonel would be able to explode nuclear weapons whenever he wanted.

I had forgotten about that issue until I read the book. That issue never has been significant in any other campaign, but it was perhaps the major issue in 1964.

The 1964 issue that I remember was whether restaurants, hotels and other such private businesses should have to serve Negroes. As I thought about that issue at that time, I came to think that the government should not compel private businesses. My family recently had traveled through some Southern states, and we saw the segregation system, which was atrocious. Nevertheless, as I listened to the 1964 debates about that issue, I found myself agreeing with the Goldwater people who argued that the government's powers were limited. I pretty much kept that opinion to myself, however.

Another issue was whether the USA should get out of the United Nations. One aspect of that issue was that some people even criticized the UNICEF collections that we kids while trick-or-treating.

Another memory of that election was all the campaign bumper stickers and buttons. The Goldwater paraphernalia featured the chemical symbols for "gold" and "water".

I remember that Toby Beck's parents favored Goldwater and had AuH2O bumper stickers on their car and maybe a poster in their yard. That was the only family that I remember making such a public show of their support for Goldwater. My parents were for Johnson.

On October 27, a week before Election Day, Ronald Reagan gave a speech that was televised. This speech is so famous in US political history that it is called "The Speech". I happened to watch that speech, and I was hugely impressed by it. Thus, during the campaign's last week, I was converted suddenly into being a Goldwater supporter.

Here is a video of "The Speech".

A day or two before the election, our seventh-grade class voted for who we thought should be elected. As I remember, Johnson won our class vote by a big majority, but I voted for Goldwater.

The next presidential election, in 1968, was extremely dramatic and memorable, but by that time I had left Seward, Nebraska, and was living in Eugene, Oregon.


Gene Meyer posted the following comment on my Facebook page:
Mike, loved the commentary. We were there as kids in the 60s. My house voted for Goldwater, though I don't know why. My dad and mom always voted Republican. 
The ad of the child with the daisy and the count down helped Johnson win...biggest landslide ever?. 
He (Johnson) was a good president, I think. Nixon wasn't. Ford was a place saver, Regan energizied things but was a "little" corrupt. Bush 41 was too wonky. (Wouldn't be prudent, Read my lips). Clinton was the master politican with no regard for trurth or culture...just do what I need to do to get my way...(Back off Newt, you're toast), Bush 43 meant well, but WAY over his head. So my bias (family bias) gave me pause. 
I've mostly voted Republican over the years, (though I did vote for Carter), mostly because of Supreme Court nominations. I think both parties are married to special interests and money. I think Obama means well, but he can't sell anything and will go down worse than Bush 43 as the poorest viewed president since Hoover or Coolidge.