Driving and singing: Paul Simon, “Peace Like a River”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

When I was a boy, even a teen, Paul Simon was my hero. I didn’t know anything of him personally, and except for one appearance on late-night TV — was it Saturday Night Live? I can’t remember — I’d never seen or heard anything of him but the songs he recorded. But his songs so often went straight to the heart, to things that mattered, and I loved him for being able to write so truthfully and articulately about relationships and the inner life.


My college years coincided with the introduction of the compact disc. Lots of people were selling their records to buy CDs, and like a gleaner in the fields I followed along behind them hoovering up great records on the cheap. I bought the entire Paul Simon catalog that way, including his self-titled solo debut, fresh from the breakup from Art Garfunkel. Unlike the lush, highly produced work the duo produced toward the end of their career, this album sounded spare and a little unfinished, from songwriting to instrumentation to production. Still, it produced the hits “Mother and Child Renuion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.”

But my favorite song from this record is “Peace Like a River.” I don’t know why this song resonates with me and I can’t even figure out what this song is about. But I love how the beat and guitar work create a dark mood, and I love the raw emotion I hear when he sings “I’ve seen the glorious day.” It brings tears to my eyes. And I sing aiee-e-e-e right along with him right out loud, sometimes shredding my vocal cords if they’re not warmed up.

I would die to hear Paul play this live. The closest I’ve come was a few years ago when Paul did a concert in Bloomington. I don’t remember why I couldn’t go. But local radio station WTTS broadcast the show live and I listened to it all. Unbelievably, he played this song. I just cried. I couldn’t believe it. Such an obscure old thing, but a song that has always moved me for reasons I can’t reach.

Click Play to hear Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River.”


Life’s the pits (but the cherries sure are sweet)

Is life a bowl of cherries?

It depends on what you think the bowl of cherries represents.

I think most people assume it represents pleasure and fun and ease, bringing a life that, as Paul Simon wrote in a song, “rolls easy as a breeze, drifting through a summer night, heading for a sunny day.” But Simon’s song makes the counterpoint: “Most folks’ lives, they stumble, Lord they fall, through no fault of their own.” I think that most of us identify with the stumble far more than the breeze, even if we can look back and say that we’ve done all right. In the Bible, Ecclesiastes certainly illustrates many ways that life is, by its nature, hard and unfair and, in the end, meaningless.

But what if the bowl of cherries instead represents the good things we sometimes get, gifts of temporary pleasure that we get to enjoy while they last? Cherries are sweet while fresh, but even if you refrigerate them, soon enough they shrivel up and grow moldy. So it is with all of life’s gifts – and there are such gifts, even for one whose life is mostly about stumbling. Ecclesiastes also tells us over and over that while we’re here we get many good gifts – food and drink, our work, our spouses, our possessions – and we should enjoy them while we have them. I think the Depression-era lyricist understood this when he wrote:

Life is just a bowl of cherries.
Don’t take it serious; life’s so mysterious.
You work, you save, you worry so,
But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go.
So keep repeating it’s the berries,
The strongest oak must fall,
The sweet things in life, to you were just loaned
So how can you lose what you’ve never owned?
Life is just a bowl of cherries,
So live and laugh at it all.