The wordless chorus has become a gimmick in sing-along balladry and throwback pop. Done badly, it sounds like lazy songwriting or – to borrow a phrase from Somerset Magum – “unworked emotion.” At its best, wordless chant is a soaring moment that expresses beauty or tragedy where language fails. Either way, it usually starts in parentheses, as a placeholder. (As he says, “We’ll put something better here when we meet.”
In what is one of the great selections of non-verbal melodies, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” channels his raw power with just two repeated words (and maybe one word?): “Lie-la-lie, Lie-la- lie-lie-lie.” – Lies … ” Paul Simon’s hit song from the 1970s A bridge over troubled waters Dan Inav writes that “the snare drum whip under control” (played by staff drummer Hal Blaine) needs no further explanation. Financial Times:
[The Boxer] It was the result of a painstaking and extended recording process that took more than 100 hours, used many backing musicians and even included several locations – from Nashville, to Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel, to a somewhat small Ethernet corridor location at one of Columbia Records’ New York studios, an Echo elevator shaft.
Simon’s epic narrative song wasn’t like the “unaltered, house records that were probably most associated with folk music at the time.”
Some see “Lee-La-Lee” as an inauthentic rendition of Bob Dylan that digs a Woody Guthrie-like image. In a 1984 interview quoted in the Polyphonic video above, Simon rejected the theory. I think the song is about me: Everybody’s beating me. He and Art Garfunkel explained the battered-but-not-broken competitor theme as emerging from the allegorical dream that he and Art Garfunkel took from critics:
For the first few years there was only gratitude. It took two or three years for people to realize that we weren’t some weirdo from England, but two guys from Queens singing rock ‘n’ roll. And maybe we weren’t real people at all! We won’t even be hippies!”
He cleverly pushes the song away from a narrative about someone who isn’t even a hippie. And being from Queens, he can tell a New York story like few others. Simon mentions his frustration at being misunderstood, but the protagonist’s struggle to make it in the big city is more universal than a songwriter’s angst.
The boxer is a “protagonist representative of the struggle and loneliness that can come with working-class life,” Polyphonic said. “The second verse is a careful depiction of the young boxer’s existence as he tries to find his footing in a harsh world.”
When I left my home and family
I am no better than a boy.
In the silence of the train station
Sitting low, looking for the poor neighborhood
Where the naked people go
Looking for places
Only they know
Middle class Simon didn’t live this character’s life, nor did he do boxing. But his ability to imagine the lives of others in story-songs like “The Boxer” is his greatest strength as a writer. Simon’s narrative gift has served him time and time again in his career, and it has also served his fans. As Simon’s schoolyard sleazy, frustrated lover looks for an outlet, and the bitter, down-and-out tragic hero tries to make it in the big city, we can feel it even if we haven’t been there ourselves.
You can learn more about writing polyphonic cries of despair and struggle in the videos above. And, learn about the recording from the musicians who played on it, including drummer Hal Blaine. Then, watch Simon and Garfunkel fill Central Park with the song’s timeless harmonies, and above, watch Simon alone in 2020, playing a different version for his New York friends to fight the fear and pain of Covid. to close.