What Great Literature Sounds Like
By Kimber Williams
One of the first things Paul Simon did during his visit to Emory in September was raise doubt about his qualifications to present the 2013 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature—and, just as quickly, dispel it.
“I’m not a lecturer, I’m a songwriter,” he told the rapt crowd in Glenn Memorial Auditorium.
But the award-winning American artist who so deftly transforms poetry into lyrics, songs into storytelling, did speak. And sing. And perform elegant, familiar tunes and wrestle with challenging artistic questions, sharing his insights into a career that has spanned fifty years with music that has touched generations.
And so began a three-day celebration, a musical journey exploring the literature of songwriting and the mysteries of creativity as Simon visited Emory for the twelfth series of Ellmann Lectures. Established in 1988, the Ellmann Lecture Series honors the late Richard Ellmann, Emory’s first Robert W. Woodruff Professor and a noted literary critic and biographer.
Simon’s campus appearance included four public events: two lectures—generously layered with musical moments—a conversation with former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and a concluding concert at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.
Introducing Simon’s first lecture, Ellmann Lectures Director Joseph Skibell, professor of English and creative writing, noted that “from the dawn of civilization, great literature has been sung—the Torah, the Psalms, the Koran, the Homeric epics were all meant to be sung. . . . For nearly fifty years, Paul Simon’s songs have been doing the work of great literature.”
For his first appearance, “Sailing on an Endless Sea: My Life as a Songwriter,” Simon presented a musical memoir, sharing signature “Kodachrome” moments from his own life.
On writing “The Sound of Silence,” for instance, Simon offered this insight: “I was still living at home . . . and would sit with my guitar in the tiled bathroom with the lights off and the tap running. ‘Hello, darkness, my old friend’ was not a metaphor . . . I was literally sitting in the dark. Emotionally, the song was influenced by JFK’s assassination. I had no inkling I had written a song that would last fifty years. I was twenty-one years old.”
A story to conjure the next time you hear the unmistakable minor notes that signal the welcoming of darkness—a song that, thanks to Paul Simon, has become our old friend.