Why Simon & Garfunkel made a political statement out of Christmas carol 'Silent Night'

4 December 2023, 11:31

When Simon & Garfunkel covered the Christmas carol 'Silent Night', they turned the gentle song into a poignant political statement.
When Simon & Garfunkel covered the Christmas carol 'Silent Night', they turned the gentle song into a poignant political statement. Picture: Getty

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

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'Silent Night' is a Christmas staple.

Christmas wouldn't be the same without hearing the charming, heart-warming carol 'Silent Night', and it's been that way since the early 19th century.

Originating in Austria, the song came into being after Josef Mohr and composer Franz Gruber teamed up to provide music for a festive celebration.

On Christmas Eve in 1818, the first-ever public performance of 'Stille Nacht' or as we know it 'Silent Night' unfolded.

Since then, it's become a Christmas carol close to every Westerner's hearts, and has been covered by over three hundred artists.

The likes of Julie Andrews, The Carpenters, Stevie Nicks, Sinead O'Connor, tenor Andrea Bocelli, Bon Jovi, and even actor Christopher Lee have covered the perennial Christmas favourite.

Undoubtedly the most famous, recognised as the standard for the best part of a century however, is Bing Crosby's 1935 version which he re-recorded in 1945.

There was a version by legendary folk-pop duo Simon & Garfunkel that resonated with listeners, but for a very different reason.

In 1966, releasing their rendition of 'Silent Night' on their third studio album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel transformed the carol into a powerful political statement.

7 O'clock News / Silent Night

Some years back, Paul Simon was asked if there was any song in the entire history of music that he could have written, what would it be?

He replied 'Silent Night', which seemed like an odd choice given its festive connotations, yet it makes perfect sense.

The serene and poignant melody that Gruber composed shares the simplicity of a folk song, which relates given his first performance alongside Mohr was accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar.

Though he had composed the music for organ, he kept the melody a simple one, and one that translated into various forms of music in the decades since.

The beautiful, gentle words written by Father Mohr feel like a hymn. Simon & Garfunkel used that sentiment, and placed their version against a stark political backdrop.

Simon & Garfunkel made a powerful political statement from their version of 'Silent Night'.
Simon & Garfunkel made a powerful political statement from their version of 'Silent Night'. Picture: Getty

The duo created a radical sound collage from what could have easily (and for some regrettably) been a gorgeous, straightforward cover version.

Titled '7 O'Clock News/Silent Night', Simon & Garfunkel juxtaposed the warming Christmas carol against dialogue from a newsreader.

Reading out some of the horrors that took place throughout the previous year, they hired radio DJ and announcer Charlie O’Donnell to read out headlines which bleed in and out of the tender song.

Accompanied by a simple piano, the two-part harmony emphasises the joy and warmth of a more innocent time, contrast peace against the unrest of the decade.

Music was increasingly becoming an artistic vehicle to communicate political ideology, and Simon & Garfunkel couldn't have made their feelings more clear.

Phoebe Bridgers (featuring Fiona Apple and Matt Berninger) - 7 O'Clock News / Silent Night

The topics covered throughout O'Donnell's newsreader part include the indictment of murderer Richard Speck, the premature death of comedian Lenny Bruce and the civil rights march in Cicero, Illinois organised by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mentioning the issues that painted a picture of the summer of 1966 is a powerful message, that harmony and disarray with always co-exist.

A time capsule of the disillusionment and uncertainty that the youth were experiencing throughout that period, Simon & Garfunkel understood the social and political upheaval that was desired.

The song's message still resonates to this day, with indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, Fiona Apple, and The National's Matt Berninger covering 'Silent Night' in a similar style, replacing the newscaster section with updated issues society faces today.

Some people feel like the more sombre a Christmas song is, the more poignant it becomes. In Simon & Garfunkel's case, that's certainly true.

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