By ERIN ALLEN
Paul Simon's only burden would seem to be the lack of shelf space for the many awards and honors he has received for a career in popular music spanning nearly a half century. The Library of Congress recently added to that burden when it bestowed the inaugural Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
"Still crazy after all these years" (according to his popular lyrics), the 65-year-old Simon was certainly lifted higher at a gala concert held in his honor on May 23. An all-star cast of performers—with full trophy cases of their own—sang Simon's praises with catchy variations of his hits and a nod to the Gershwin brothers who paved the musical way.
The previous evening, Simon appeared on the podium in the Great Hall, where Librarian of Congress James H. Billington formally presented him with the prize medal at a special dinner and reception.
"As the custodians of America's national library, we take seriously our responsibility to preserve the history and heritage of our common humanity," said Billington. "A great body of that heritage is the body of popular song, which gives voice to the concerns and dreams of each generation of Americans. And, with the inauguration of this prize, we give official recognition to the enduring importance of this music that has in many ways transformed the soundscape of the world." He continued, "Paul Simon is the ideal choice to be the first recipient. His huge creative output, hundreds of songs and [the] richness in scope of his music provide an important cultural document of the past 50 years, synthesizing different styles from different cultures and creating bridges between people and across troubled waters."
Accepting the medal from Billington, Simon remarked, "I'm amazed to find myself in this great room, receiving this award that puts my work in the context of the genius of the Gershwins. It's simply impossible for me to comprehend that the music I wrote—which came from my generation, from the heart, from my parents—could have affected people over the course of the years and in such a way."
He added, "I was simply interested in writing certain thoughts and achieving a certain sound on records, and that's all I paid attention to. When people say 'thank you very much' and put my work in some sort of context, I'm very pleased but surprised, because I never thought of it in any other way than what I was meant to do. Thank you so much. I am so touched."
In his remarks, Billington announced that the works-in-progress manuscript in which Simon wrote the lyrics for his song "Graceland" would be added to the Library's collections. Simon hopes to set a precedent with his gift, inspiring future Gershwin Prize recipients to donate an item from their personal collections.
He said, "I hope that tradition will continue when the other recipients get their awards, and [that] the Library of Congress will have a place reserved." He concluded, to the laughter of the audience, "I know that 'Graceland' has been promised to be put in the same case as the Gutenberg Bible, and I thank you so much for that, Dr. Billington."
The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding. Like much of the Gershwins' compositions, the works of the recipients will cross social, racial and national boundaries, and reflect myriad contemporary traditions such as rock, jazz, country, pop, blues, folk and gospel. Whether he or she is a composer, singer/songwriter or interpreter, the recipient of the prize will be recognized for entertaining and informing audiences, for drawing on the acknowledged foundations of popular song and for inspiring new generations of performers on their own professional journeys.
Billington said, "Named after one of America's most beloved songwriting teams, George and Ira Gershwin, the prize will be awarded annually to a composer or interpreter of popular song whose life's work has had a significant and uplifting influence on the world of music and on our society as a whole." He added, "The prize is part of the Library's renewed effort to recognize, celebrate and encourage musical creativity, the well-spring of the vast music collections housed at the Library of Congress."
The Librarian will continue to make the annual selection in consultation with a board that is both credible and broad enough in scope to represent the full spectrum of popular song. Board members may include, but need not be limited to, scholars, producers, performers, music critics, songwriters and subject specialists within and outside the Library.
The medal was adapted from the design of the Congressional Gold Medal that the Gershwin brothers received posthumously in 1985. It features George and Ira in profile, along with the now-famous inscription Ira wrote in the guestbook of the Librarian of Congress in 1966. Quoting from his Pulitzer Prize-winning show "Of Thee I Sing," he wrote, "Shining star and inspiration, worthy of a mighty nation—and I do mean the LOC [Library of Congress]." Edgar Z. Steever and Charles Y. Martin, sculptors and engravers at the U.S. Mint, designed the medal.
A Life in Song, Social Causes
During his distinguished career, Simon has been the recipient of many honors and awards, including 12 Grammy awards, three of which ("Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Still Crazy After All These Years" and "Graceland") were for album of the year. In 2003, he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as half of the duo Simon and Garfunkel. He is an inductee of both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a solo artist and once with Art Garfunkel.
His song "Mrs. Robinson," from the motion picture "The Graduate," was among the top 10 of the American Film Institute's "100 Years…100 Songs." He was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and was named one of TIME magazine's "100 People Who Shape Our World" in 2006. His 1986 album "Graceland" was added to the 2006 National Recording Registry. (See Information Bulletin, April 2007.)
Of his many concert appearances, Simon said he most enjoyed the two concerts in New York's Central Park (in 1981 with his partner and childhood friend Art Garfunkel and in 1991 as a solo artist) and the series of shows he did at the invitation of Nelson Mandela, which made him the first American artist to perform in postapartheid South Africa.
Simon's philanthropic work includes co-founding the Children's Health Fund (CHF) with Dr. Irwin Redlener. The CHF donates and staffs mobile medical vans that bring health care to poor children in urban and rural locations around the United States. In the 20 years since its founding, CHF has provided more than 1 million doctor/patient visits. In the wake of Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, it was the primary source of health care for the communities destroyed by the storms. Simon has also raised millions of dollars for worthy causes as varied as the American Foundation for AIDS Research, the Nature Conservancy, the Fund for Imprisoned Children in South Africa and Autism Speaks. In 1989, the United Negro College Fund honored him with its Frederick D. Patterson Award.
The Gershwin Legacy
Why name the award for the Gershwins? Certainly American music has had its fair share of uniquely talented and influential composers. But perhaps none have left quite so indelible a mark on the musical landscape of popular song as the Gershwin brothers.
Their music was considered revolutionary in its time—crossing cultural boundaries by infusing ragtime in "Swanee," blues in "Summertime" and even jazz in "I Got Rhythm." All of their songs, instantly recognizable, are still performed today—proof of their enduring popularity.
Speaking of the award to Washington Post reporter Richard Harrington, Simon said, "It's a recognition of the values that the Gershwins exemplified: a sophistication, an exploration of other aspects of American culture, a curiosity about other cultures. I think that was part of the reason they thought the Gershwin name would be what they wanted to represent in this award."
After George's death in 1937, Ira devoted considerable time and energy to organizing his brother's papers. Early on, he recognized the importance of preserving George's music and making it available for scholarly research by future generations. In 1939 Ira wrote to Harold Spivacke, then chief of the Library's Music Division, asking if "the manuscripts of George were worthy of the national library." Spivacke replied, "As a great admirer of your brother's work—and you played such an important part in it all—it is my sincere belief that any and every part of it is suitable material for the collection of our national library."
The first item Ira gave to the Library in 1939 was George's sketch for "The Crap Shooter's Song" from "Porgy and Bess." With typical modesty, Ira expressed his concern about the suitability of this particular item, saying that with a little more time he might be able to "dig up something more satisfactory." Following in 1953 were manuscripts of large works from the estate of George and Ira's mother, Rose. These included "Porgy and Bess," "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris" and the "Concerto in F." Other family members and friends also contributed to the Library's burgeoning Gershwin collection.
During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Ira made periodic donations of manuscripts and other materials to the Library. One of the most remarkable features of these gifts was the accompanying pages of his annotations and remarks, which provided detailed descriptions of many of the items. Ira's contributions to the Library's collection continued until his death in 1983. In the course of the next eight years until her death in 1991, his widow Leonore sustained and expanded Ira's efforts. In 1987, she donated the remainder of the music manuscripts and lyric sheets from their home; on a number of occasions, she also purchased items for the collection. Established in 1992, the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund enables the Library to acquire additional materials and to fund programs that extend the legacy of the Gershwin brothers.
The George and Ira Gershwin Collection is rich in primary source materials documenting the brothers' lives and work. Chief in importance in the collection are the music (including orchestrations, piano-vocal scores and sketches), lyric sheets, and librettos—many in the Gershwins' handwriting. The collection also includes a wealth of correspondence, providing a firsthand view of the brothers' daily lives, creative processes and personalities. Visual materials include photographs of George, Ira, family members and friends, as well as paintings and drawings by both brothers. Legal and financial papers, 34 scrapbooks, programs, posters, scores from George's music library and scripts for radio broadcasts add up to an unparalleled resource for the study of the Gershwins and their medium.
Although temporarily closed due to construction in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the George and Ira Gershwin Room is dedicated to materials from the collection. Included in the display are George's piano and desk, Ira's typing table and typewriter, and self-portraits in oil by each brother, as well as music manuscripts and other documents that chronicle their lives and careers.
A Visit to the Library
In April, following the announcement of his award, Paul Simon and his son Adrian visited the Library of Congress for a special tour of the Thomas Jefferson Building, the American Folklife Center and the Music Division.
"It was quite extraordinary to see the breadth of holdings—quite amazing," Simon told the Washington Post. He added that receiving the Gershwin Award was special because it is not an industry award but comes "from an overview of the nation's culture as defined by the Library of Congress, which is an incredible place."
Before chatting with the Librarian of Congress, they met with Giulia Adelfio, chief of the Library's Visitors Services Office, who guided them through the Coolidge Auditorium, the stack area and book conveyor belt, the Main Reading Room and the Great Hall.
"He was starry-eyed," Adelfio said, "—not an easy state to accomplish for someone who has seen so much of the world. He clearly wanted to spend more time talking with Dr. Billington and seeing more of what the Library has to offer."
At the American Folklife Center, Director Peggy Bulger and staff members David Taylor and Michael Taft showed Simon some of the center's treasures. These included early sound recordings on media such as wax cylinders, aluminum discs, lacquer discs and spools of recording wire, as well as letters from Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, samples of Brazilian chapbook literature, a Robert Johnson test pressing and clips from the Pete and Toshi Seeger film collection.
Taft said, "Simon was especially impressed with the wire and disc recordings, since he recalled that his first recordings were on these media. He was also impressed with the Lead Belly letters, noting Lead Belly's writing ability and penmanship."
The visit culminated with a tour of the Performing Arts Reading Room, where they saw not only manuscripts of George and Ira Gershwin but also those of Beethoven, Mozart, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.
Items on display that pertained to Simon's life and interests included baseball sheet music about New York teams and players (Simon is a huge Yankees fan); Sanborne Insurance Maps showing his old neighborhood in Kew Gardens, Queens, and his high school in Forest Hills; and Life Magazine contact sheets showing Simon in a recording studio with Leonard Bernstein in 1964.
Also on display were early unpublished copyright deposits of some of Simon's songs, including "The Girl for Me" from 1956. Simon had applied for a copyright for the song, depositing several copies in the U.S. Copyright Office, along with the copyright application, as the law requires.
"He held up the lead sheet and looked at it for a while," said Jan Lauridsen, assistant chief of the Music Division. "He said it was actually his father who wrote out the notes for him."
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Library's Public Affairs Office.