Giving back: In visit to Ohio State, Paul Simon reflects on his career, legacy beyond music
The music of Paul Simon serves as a soundtrack to Americana. Songs like “The Sound of Silence,” “Mother and Child Reunion” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” are radio staples in a vibrant career that has spanned more than 60 years.
Simon shared some stories and lessons from that career with a packed audience of students, faculty and staff at The Ohio State University on Tuesday. President Michael V. Drake interviewed the Grammy Award-winning musician in Weigel Auditorium.
Simon, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, discussed his upbringing in New York City and a musical beginning that was influenced by his father, a musician and band leader. Simon began writing and playing music as a teen and knew he was on to something when one of his songs became a favorite on his block.
“If other people would sing that song around the neighborhood, that’s a hit. If you can get someone to sing your song, that’s a hit,” Simon said.
Simon was in town as a guest for a class Drake co-teaches with Moritz College of Law Dean Alan Michaels. “The Civil Rights Movement and the Supreme Court” examines the Civil Rights era and uses music from the time as a reference point. Previous musical guests have included Mary Wilson of the Supremes and Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane.
“Were you going to be a professional musician when you left college?” Drake asked.
Simon said he performed well on the exams to get into law school and started taking classes, but only for one year. The first recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” didn’t see much success, but a remixed version with electric guitar, bass and drums started to find an audience and eventually reached the top of the pop charts.
“That’s how I got started and then I’ve had a very successful career, for which I am very grateful,” Simon said.
Simon talked about the music that influenced his writing, including ska, reggae, Latin music and gospel. Songs like “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” had a cultural impact far beyond American radio. Simon said fellow musician Ruben Blades explained the importance of the music many years later.
“He said to me, ‘You have no idea what it was like growing up as a kid in Panama and to hear a Latin name coming through in an American pop song,’” Simon said. “It was a big deal.”
Simon’s music has always had a social connection, and he has invested in philanthropy to protect the environment and to provide musical instruments and instruction to children in public schools.
Drake and Simon connected through the Children’s Health Fund. Simon and Irwin and Karen Redlener founded the charity in 1987 after touring temporary housing for homeless families in New York City. Simon walked away recognizing the critical need for health care and funded a mobile medical clinic to serve the community. Drake and Karen Redlener were classmates in grade school and high school.
Simon is soon to be out on the road for his Homeward Bound – The Farewell Tour, which will end in Madison Square Garden in September. Simon said he enjoys performing live but dislikes being away from home.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll keep my word on that,” he joked. “I’m past 75 now, I feel like I’m coming around third base. It’s time to be giving back. That’s my intention.”
The tour will not be the end of his musical career. He has a new album coming out this summer featuring re-recordings of some of his earlier music that he feels did not get proper attention.
Simon ended his conversation with an acoustic performance of “Questions for the Angels” and “American Tune” for the audience. Drake returned the favor by leading the audience in singing “Carmen Ohio.”