For more than 50 years now, I’ve been a professional songwriter. It’s been a great privilege, putting these songs out in the world and watching them inspire generation after generation. It’s been said my best songs have become permanent touchstones of American life. And I take great pride in all my songs, even the ones I plagiarized from musicians I heard performing at open-mic nights.
People always ask where my ideas for songs come from. The truth is, they come from all over. Some I write myself, some I take from other people. Many times I’ll hear someone else playing and it will inspire me to compose something all my own. Other times I’ll just write down what they’re singing word-for-word and take credit for it.
I can remember back in 1964 hearing a kid in a Bleecker Street coffeehouse sing a song that seemed to capture perfectly the directionless angst we were all feeling in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. His words resonated deep within me, to the point where I felt as if the song could be my own. So I decided to just take it.
That was “The Sound Of Silence.” It was so good I went to hear him again a week later and stole “I Am A Rock.”
A lot of my listeners assume “Homeward Bound” came from all the touring Art Garfunkel and I did. They’re right. One night we were sharing a bill with a bunch of other acts, and someone played this song about feeling homesick. The next thing I know, we’re in the studio recording it, Columbia puts out the single, and we’ve got another top 10 hit.
Alas, the songs don’t always arrived fully formed like that. I wish! Sometimes it takes months, even years, of work to make someone else’s music your own. Most of Graceland was done that way. What a great opportunity it was to go to South Africa and record all these great musicians from diverse backgrounds who either had no concept of song publishing royalties or lacked the legal resources to stop me from giving myself full credit.
I should stress that not everything I rip off is appropriated wholesale. Sometimes I steal a song and add my own ideas to it. Take “Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War.” Did you know the original version had no dog in it at all? It was just this simple song I stole about the painter and his wife. I added the dog part.
In the old days, the ideas came to me very quickly, mostly because I was constantly going to open-mic nights and bringing a tape recorder with me. This habit came in handy when, in 1967, Mike Nichols asked me to contribute music to his new film. I was pretty busy at the time, but I licensed a few of my songs to him, including “Scarborough Fair,” a nice little public-domain ballad I had copyrighted in my own name a couple years back.
Around about the hundredth time he asked me to write a song for this character called Mrs. Robinson, something finally clicked in my brain and I went scrambling through my tapes until I found it: a song called “Mrs. Jorgensen” I had illicitly recorded God knows where. It was full of gibberish about cupcakes and Joe DiMaggio that had nothing to do with the movie, but hey, I change the woman’s name and it worked!
Sometimes you can have a great idea that belongs to someone else and not even realize it.
I learned a lot about songwriting in those years. For me, it’s about more than sitting alone in a room, putting pen to paper all day. You have to get out there and listen to the way people talk, to their stories, and, most importantly, to any really good uncopyrighted songs they might have. Then you have to write those songs down and pass them off as your own. And that’s it.
The last thing I want to do, however, is leave you with the impression that the entire Paul Simon songbook is the uncredited work of other people. That’s not true at all. Especially these days. On my most recent album I actually wrote write eight of the 11 songs, because there just aren’t as many good lyricists around to steal from as there used to be.
I also wrote “Bridge Over Trouble Water.” The whole thing, lyrics and music, all on my own. Except for the “Sail on, silver girl” part. Art wrote that. I asked him, if you’re “like a bridge,” how can you be “sailing right behind”? Bridges don’t sail. Makes no fucking sense.