Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in Feb. 2020
Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The duo’s fifth and final album was a hit with three singles reaching the top 10 and six Grammy wins, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year for the title track, a song that would see over hundreds of versions recorded over its 50-year history.
The song’s journey from Simon & Garfunkel hit to pop (and R&B and gospel and country and jazz and even disco) single starts in Simon’s home in 1969. He was listening to an album by gospel group the Swan Silvertones. It was just a line from one song. In the middle of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”, there it was. Lead singer Claude Jeter sings, “I’ll be a bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name.” As Robert Hilburn writes in his 2018 biography of Simon, “Out of the blue, he wrote his own melody, which felt gentle, caring, and undeniably beautiful. Then he started writing the words that became the first two verses…” Even Simon was amazed by how quickly the song came out; the bulk of it took about 20 minutes, he recalled, with the first two verses taking about two hours: “It just seemed to flow through me. In a way, you don’t feel you can really even call it your own, but then again, it’s nobody else’s. I didn’t know where it came from, but I knew it was exceptional.”
Simon wasn’t alone in that feeling. It resonated with listeners and artists, then and now. In the midst of an uncertain American political and social landscape, there was something calming about the idea of a helping hand, a comforting place, somewhere soft to land. It’s part of the song’s enduring legacy that, even now, the song seems to function as a salve. (It was performed by various artists as a fundraiser following the 2017 Grenfell fire in London; Mary J. Blige and Andrea Boccelli’s duet was used as a benefit for the 2010 earthquake in Haiti; and Simon himself performed it at the Democratic National Convention in 2016.) By the end of 1970, the song had appeared on 24 charting albums, and 12 more albums featuring the song charted in 1971. Choosing 10 notable versions from more than 400 is a daunting task. It’s less that these are the “best” of those hundreds of attempts, but each one brings something interesting to the song — whether it’s a bold arrangement, a hint of the artist’s future, a new emotional weight, or just being really, really good.
Here are our favorite covers of one of our — and everyone else’s — favorite songs.