Hello there! This week our blog features a wonderful folk-rock song, The Boxer. First we will discuss the original version of the song by Simon and Garfunkel. Next, we will show the song as it was covered by Joan Baez, and finally a cover version by Jerry Douglas, Shawn Colvin and Alison Krauss.
This is also a “farewell tour” blog post. Both Paul Simon and Joan Baez are recently on tours that have been advertised as the final concert tour for each artist. So, barring a change of heart, these two legendary artists are touring for the last time. We salute both of them.
Simon & Garfunkel and The Boxer:
Simon and Garfunkel were high school buddies who initially began performing as the duo Tom and Jerry. They had one early hit, Hey Schoolgirl in 1957, but then broke up and each of them enrolled in college. We have previously encountered Simon & Garfunkel a few times: see here, here and here.
Below is a photo of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon performing in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1968.Embed from Getty Images
They re-united in 1963 and issued an album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM in October 1964. It was a mixture of original Paul Simon tunes, a few traditional folk songs, and covers of a few pop tunes. In this album, the boys used their actual names rather than stage names. The album was initially a flop.
However, a DJ in Boston began playing The Sound of Silence on his show. The song became popular, and stations along the East Coast began to play it. At this point, producer Tom Wilson re-mixed the song, turning it into a folk-pop hybrid. Shazam! – The Sound of Silence reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts. Simon & Garfunkel then became superstars and major folk-rock headliners.
The song The Boxer was the first single release from Simon & Garfunkel’s 1970 album Bridge Over Troubled Water. The song was actually released in March 1969, preceding the album. The tune takes the form of a somber lament. Told in the first person, it reviews the life of a boxer who is facing poverty and loneliness. The song also contains some phrases (e.g., “workman’s wages” and “poorer quarters”) that were apparently inspired by the Bible.
I am just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises
All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places
Only they would know
Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie
Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie
The song is particularly known for its oft-repeated phrase “lie lie lie.” Apparently Paul Simon initially inserted that as simply a place-holder, intending to replace it with lyrics. However, eventually he left that refrain in place.
Simon and Garfunkel tinkered with the song for many hours in the studio. Guitarist and session musician Fred Carter, Jr. (featured in this song on two guitars and a Dobro) has provided a detailed discussion of many of the variations that were tried out before The Boxer was finalized (Fred Carter, Jr, Fretboard Journal 12, winter 2008).
And here are Simon and Garfunkel in a live version of The Boxer, from their Concert in Central Park in Sept. 1981.
What a beautiful song! The record of this tune featured a bass drum with an unusually heavy reverb, and that touch is repeated in this live show.
Note that in this performance, Simon & Garfunkel include a verse that did not appear on the album version of the song. I believe that my number one Simon & Garfunkel tune is America, but for many people The Boxer is their favorite.
Paul Simon tells a funny story about the song. Apparently he was contacted by a woman who censors the song when singing it to her children. She replaces the line “the whores on Seventh Avenue” with “toy stores on Seventh Avenue.” Simon felt that the new lyric worked as well as the original one.
The 1981 Central Park concert drew half a million people. By then, Simon and Garfunkel had gone their separate ways, but they re-united for this performance. Obviously, there was still a tremendous demand and appreciation for Simon and Garfunkel.
The Concert in Central Park was such a phenomenal success that Simon and Garfunkel planned a subsequent tour in 1982. However, that tour was cancelled, and although the pair recorded several tracks for another album, in 1983 Paul Simon decided to release the album Hearts and Bones as a solo project.
Paul Simon has since gone on to an exceptionally successful solo career. In 2007, he was awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Music. I was especially fond of his pathbreaking album Graceland.
For that album, Simon assembled a group of American and African musicians and produced a fascinating amalgam of world music, rock ‘n roll, and even zydeco. The result was a stunning collection of songs. It became Simon’s best-selling album ever (approximately 16 million albums sold world-wide), and has been added to the National Recording Registry for its “cultural, historical and aesthetic importance.”
Paul Simon has just concluded a final tour. From his wonderful collaboration with Art Garfunkel to his impressive solo career, he has been one of the more creative musicians of the rock era. Thanks for the memories.
Joan Baez and The Boxer:
We previously encountered Joan Baez for her version of the traditional folk song House of the Rising Sun, and for her cover of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. So here we will briefly review her life and career.
Joan Baez is an American folk icon. She has now been performing for 60 years, and to me she is the female equivalent of Pete Seeger. Her bright, shining voice and staunch convictions have been utilized for decades to further progressive causes.
Joan became a legend in the civil-rights movement after performing We Shall Overcome at the 1963 Washington March (site of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The photo below shows Joan and Bob Dylan at that rally. She was also active in anti-Vietnam war activities, including draft resistance efforts and tax protests against the war. In addition, she has been a champion for women’s rights.Embed from Getty Images
Ever since I saw Joan Baez in 1961, right at the start of her career, I have been a big fan. Initially I was bowled over by the clarity and strength of her voice. Since then I have seen her live a few times. She no longer produces the piercing vibrato from her youth, but her voice is still lovely and true.
Here is Joan Baez in a live performance of The Boxer.
The Boxer appears frequently at Joan Baez concerts. The song begins with just Joan accompanying herself on guitar. However, at the first “lie lie lie,” an orchestral backing materializes. The song gets significantly louder, and even a bit faster in tempo. The audience sings along with the “lie lie lie” chorus.
In her first few records Joan Baez worked her way through the catalog of traditional American and English folk ballads. She later expanded her portfolio to include modern-day folk songs and pop tunes. I still find her earliest songs haunting and riveting, particularly the compilations (Joan Baez I and Joan Baez II) of her early work.
The documentary Joan Baez: How Sweet The Sound was made to commemorate the 50th year of her performing career. She made her debut appearance in 1958 at Café 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts (at the time her father, physicist Albert Baez, was a faculty member at MIT).
Then in the fall of 1959, Joan appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, where she accompanied folksinger Bob Gibson on two songs. After that, she continued to make strides in her career until she became a folk superstar. In addition to her appearance at the 1963 Washington March, Joan also was one of the artists at Woodstock and had a prominent appearance in the Woodstock concert film.
She is currently finishing off a “farewell tour,” so this may be it for Joanie’s performing career. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. All the best, Joan – good luck and good health!
Jerry Douglas, Shawn Colvin and Alison Krauss and The Boxer:
In this section we will discuss a version of The Boxer from Shawn Colvin, Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss, but I will focus on the career of Alison Krauss.
Alison Krauss was born in Decatur, Illinois in 1971, and raised in Champaign, IL. She was a musical prodigy, winning fiddle contests at age 10 and recording her first album at age 14.
She formed a bluegrass band, Union Station, and won her first Grammy Award at age 18. By the way, Alison Krauss has been nominated for an astounding 42 Grammys. Currently she has won 27 Grammy Awards, a total that is more than any other woman and second only to conductor Georg Solti.
Below is a photo of Alison Krauss performing with Jerry Douglas, the dobro player for Union Station.Embed from Getty Images
With Union Station, Alison concentrated more on her singing and less on fiddle playing. She has been at the center of a bluegrass revival. At age 21, Krauss became a member of the Grand Ole Opry company in 1993. She was then the youngest member of that ensemble, and was the first bluegrass musician to join that company since 1964.
One of the more important events for bluegrass music was the 2000 Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? That film highlighted old-time and bluegrass music, and Alison Krauss and her Union Station bandmate Dan Tyminski contributed several songs to the movie. The soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a major surprise. It sold 7 million copies, and was awarded a Grammy for Best Album of the Year.
Alison Krauss is deservedly acclaimed for her “angelic” soprano voice. Her lovely clear vocals are at the center of the AKUS (Alison Krauss and Union Station) sound.
Here are Shawn Colvin, Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas in a live performance of The Boxer.
Isn’t this wonderful? It was performed in 2007, at a ceremony where Paul Simon was awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Music.
The Boxer is a plaintive and wistful song anyway, but in the hands of these artists it is heartbreaking. Jerry Douglas (a bandmate of Krauss in Union Station) turns in a virtuoso performance on dobro, with a sweet solo at the end. The beautiful and touching harmonies from Shawn Colvin and Alison Krauss are just perfect for this tune. I am genuinely moved by their version of The Boxer.
In recent years Alison Krauss has branched out. She collaborated with Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant on a 2007 album, Raising Sand. That album won an astonishing 5 Grammys including Album of the Year and Record of the Year.
Krauss has also produced several well-received albums for other country musicians, including Nickel Creek, Reba McIntyre and Alan Jackson. And she has collaborated with one of our local heroes, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music faculty member Joshua Bell.
We wish Alison Krauss continued success, and hope that she remains right at the pinnacle of country music.