(Note: Though the song is usually referred to as “The Sound of Silence” (singular), the original single is listed as “The Sounds of Silence” (plural) both on the record label and in Billboard, and thus is the title used here.)
Simon & Garfunkel’s 1964 debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. is a typical relic of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Accompanied only by acoustic guitar and upright bass, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel harmonize through versions of old spirituals and contemporary folk standards with an emphasis on protest songs: Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Simon’s own “He Was My Brother.” Wednesday Morning had the misfortune of arriving at the tail end of the folk revival, in the wake of the British Invasion, and sold accordingly. The duo split, and the album seemed destined to be forgotten. Nestled at the end of side 1, though, was one song that stood out, hinting at a possible future for popular folk music.
“The Sounds of Silence” feels like a protest song, but its object is personal, not political. Think of it as the dispirited flipside to Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” where the bustle of the crowds is the cause of loneliness instead of the cure. The duo struggle to establish a connection to the world around them, singing in tight harmony as a protest against the “songs that voices never shared.” It’s a protest doomed to fail: by its nature, a plea against indifference will be met with a shrug, if it’s heard at all. The futility of the struggle diffuses some of the potential for preachiness: a line like “hear my words that I might teach you” comes across more desperate than self-righteous. No matter how passionately they struggle to be heard, the end of each verse finds them met only with “the sound of silence.”
Nearly a year after Wednesday Morning faded into obscurity, producer Tom Wilson enlisted session musicians to overdub “The Sounds of Silence” with electric guitar, bass and drums in hopes of riding the gathering tide of folk rock.* This additional accompaniment is perfunctory and repetitious, lacking either the melodiousness of The Byrds or the loose give-and-take of Dylan’s band. Inadvertently or not, though, this unvarying plodding strikes at the heart of the song: as the duo’s cries to be heard grow more and more desperate, the uncaring world ignores them and trudges on. Ultimately the song peters out, returning to the same drip-drop guitar pattern the song opened with (echoing their “words, as silent raindrops, fell”), as the duo submits to the silence they’d battled in vain.**
The electrified “Sounds of Silence,” released without Simon & Garfunkel’s knowledge, became a surprise hit. Part of its success could be attributed to the overall popularity of folk rock, but at least as crucial was the sense of alienation coursing through the song. The teenagers who embraced rock and roll in the ’50s had grown into post-adolescents uncertain of what their futures had in store, and Simon & Garfunkel’s pensive, deliberate music struck a chord.*** “The Sounds of Silence” reinforced the message underlying The Beatles’ and Dylan’s most experimental and ambitious work of the period: that there was room for rock and roll to mature, that it could be respectable without sacrificing its power. 8
*Wilson was no mere opportunist, though. In December 1964, inspired by the recent success of The Animals’ version of “The House of the Rising Sun,” he began experimenting with adding rock overdubs to some of Bob Dylan’s earliest recordings (including the version of “The House of the Rising Sun” from his 1962 debut). One month later, Wilson escorted Dylan into his electric phase with Bringing It All Back Home. The overdubs on “The Sounds of Silence” were recorded on June 15, 1965, after Wilson wrapped the first day’s sessions for Dylan’s next single: “Like a Rolling Stone.”
**“I Am a Rock” is the sequel, then, where they have learned to embrace isolation as self-protection.
***No coincidence that the duo’s music recurs throughout The Graduate, the ne plus ultra of ’60s post-adolescent angst, or that director Mike Nichols chose “The Sounds of Silence” to soundtrack the film’s title sequence.
Hit #1 on January 1, 1966 for 1 week; repeaked on January 22, 1966 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
151 of 1015 #1’s reviewed; 14.88% through the Hot 100