"Bridge Over Troubled Water" Simon & Garfunkel

I imagine you’re familiar with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” though it’s been nearly 50 years since it topped music charts and took home a handful of Grammys. The song’s message of devoted friendship has a way of resurfacing when it’s most needed. People found comfort when it was played over news reports of the 9/11 rescue efforts. Singers recorded new versions of the song to raise money for hurricane and earthquake victims. And in smaller, more personal, ways, it’s been a soundtrack for challenging times. Here’s my “Bridge Over Troubled Water” story.

In 2007 I was on a bus, gritting my teeth with each shift of the engine’s gears. If we could just get up to cruising speed, I prayed, this bus’s painful cries could end. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not when it was stopping every few minutes, picking up commuters as we made our way to the railway station in Stamford, Connecticut. There I would board a jarring train for Grand Central Station and then endure a couple stop-and-start subway rides before reaching my New York City destination. This is all worth it, I kept reminding myself.

That unsettling ride to the City was due to a much-needed vacation I’d planned for myself. An out-of-control work schedule and ongoing difficulties accepting my failed marriage had my mind, body and spirit in search of some joy. Music has always been my answer for tough times, and in a moment of creative dreaming I pictured piano lessons as my savior. Not ordinary lessons; New York City piano lessons.

I’d been playing piano off and on since the sixth grade, when I first became aware that music magically made life better. I wanted to learn how to replicate my favorite songs and after a year or so of lessons, I was doing so. Life was good until my peers—I hesitate to call them friends—made it clear that playing piano was for sissies. Despite my enjoyment, I wasn’t ready for that kind of social pressure. I quit playing.

I returned to piano when my daughter was in her tween years and showed an interest in playing. We signed up for classes and I found that keyboard basics quickly returned. After my daughter moved on to other hobbies, I continued, and in 2007, along with looking for a respite from my troubles, I was ready to take piano to the next step. A magazine ad for a “New England Piano Camp” looked appealing until I found out it ran during summer, my job’s busiest season. But the idea was too good to dismiss, so I called the camp’s director, who pitched an idea. He lived in New York City and if I could get myself there, find lodging and show up at his studio each day, he promised me my own week-long piano camp. Sold.

My vacation plans came together without a hitch. A friend who lived an hour outside New York offered me his place. I’d do the daily bus/train/subway into the city, then walk the dozen blocks to my teacher’s studio. After a day immersed in piano, I’d do the reverse. A packed lunch, a week’s worth of train passes and subway tokens, and I was on my way to music nirvana. Halfway through this dream camp, though, my high hopes were heading for a crash landing.

What I hadn’t accounted for—actually, what I couldn’t account for since I didn’t yet know this about myself—was my difficulty coping with noise and confusion. Having lived most my life in a small town, aside from a rowdy pep rally or a crowded Woolworth’s at Christmastime, I’d never known much other than quiet. It wasn’t until I’d returned home from New York City that a few counseling sessions helped me realize how time in the Big Apple had triggered my anxiety. But even while in the thick of it, I knew something wasn’t right.

I managed to survive the daily commute for the first few days, using self-talk to convince myself that any unease was due to a radically new schedule. I ignored the discomfort, focusing on the fact that I was learning so much, but when my alarm went off Wednesday morning, I was ready to admit defeat. Only the thought of wasting money got me out the door. I arrived at the studio, where my teacher, who’d informed me he always ran a few minutes late, had the studio unlocked.

I walked in, shut the door to the street’s noise, tossed my backpack on a chair, and collapsed at the piano. Hands on keys, I began searching for a song that my teacher hadn’t assigned, but had been playing in my mind since setting off on that morning’s commute.

When you’re weary,

feeling small…

It was Art Garfunkel’s choirboy tenor on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that had offered a healing contrast to my troubled morning. If you’ve forgotten how beautiful Garfunkel’s voice is, take a listen. (Enjoy the whole song if you’d like, but to understand my story you only need its first 30 seconds.) “Bridge Over Troubled Water”

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It was “Bridge”’s first two lines I kept hearing on my way into the City. But I didn’t just need to hear them, I had to feel them. Though I’d never attempted to play the song before and without sheet music, I wasn’t sure where to begin. But I knew how to play chords and through the process of elimination, I managed to find ones that sounded right:

E flat: When you’re weary…

A flat: Feeling small…

I played those two chords over and over until they became a meditation. There was no need to venture into the rest of the song; with the tiniest shift of my hands I’d swept away the morning’s stress. Later, I would have to again face what was tearing me up inside. But in that moment, I was okay. I’d taught myself to play peace.

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When times are tough, what song brings you peace?

“Sweet Caroline” Neil Diamond

Hearing a good pop song at the right time can be life changing. Case in point: An evening in 1989 when I was working as a traveling deejay. In the two years I had that job I did hundreds of gigs: weddings, bar mitzvahs, holiday galas, and country bar trivia nights. I spun thousands of records (actually, we used cassette tapes), and here’s the story of one song that proves the power of music.

Has there ever been a more uplifting song than “Sweet Caroline”? Neil Diamond’s gem has long been popular whenever people gather, its singalong chorus perfect for ready-to-party crowds. I call it our national anthem of feel good songs, as we saw after the Boston Marathon bombings, when the city rebuilt its confidence by singing its chorus with full voice. If you’ve forgotten how good it feels to sing it, click here: “Sweet Caroline”

Great song, right? But I never thought of it as a dance floor favorite, until that night in ‘89.

My deejaying usually entailed working two shows on a Saturday: an afternoon party and an evening event. This particular day I’d done a doubleheader and, as it crept closer to my midnight quitting time, I was feeling the drain of the day. The dance crowd had already grown thin, partyers limping off to grab one last drink. With the exception of an occasional slow song that gave tipsy couples a reason to cling to each other, the dance floor was empty and I wasn’t putting any effort into finding the perfect party song.

About ten minutes before quitting time, as I was cleaning up my workspace, an older woman approached me. I crossed my fingers that she just wanted to say thanks or complain about my song choices. Please don’t request a song, I begged to myself.

“Do you have ‘Sweet Caroline’?” the woman inquired. I looked up, her carefully applied makeup worn thin from an emotional day. The easy answer would have been to politely say I didn’t have that wonderful song, emphasizing my regret with a disappointed expression. But I did have “Sweet Caroline”—in fact, I had a whole Neil Diamond tape—and I worried that this woman might be part of the family who’d purchased my services. The company I worked for had a strict policy about pleasing customers. Family members listed their favorite songs and we guaranteed to play them. With the woman waiting for an answer, I didn’t have time to scan my sheet to see if “Caroline” was on their list. It was decision time.

I took a second look at the woman, searching beneath her fading makeup to notice something in her eyes. They weren’t demanding or pitiful; they were… hopeful. I was raised right and knew what to say.

“I sure do, ma’am. Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes!” she stated, walking away.

I could have at least have gotten a thank you, I muttered, cuing up “Caroline” on the tape. I checked my watch: three minutes to quitting time. Time for one last tune. Sure hope the crowd likes this song, ‘cause it’ll be ringing in their ears on the drive home.

“Caroline”’s melody, with gentle organ and muted horns, ushered in a change in the evening’s music. Gone was the steady thump of dance classics or the sweeping violins of a ballad. Neil’s voice, reserved at first, strikes gold when he gets to the chorus:

Sweet Caroline…good times never seemed so good…

This is a happy song, I noted, tapping my foot while returning tapes to their cases. As I lined up my equipment to lug to the van, I glanced at the dance floor. One person—one more than I expected—was swaying alone, singing with Neil. It was the lady who’d requested “Caroline.”

I looked over at the crowd, who were ignoring the lone dancer. Probably the bride’s eccentric great-aunt, I surmised. I tried to follow the family’s lead and ignore her, but I was getting a kick out of Ms. Dance The Night Away waltzing with empty air: eyes closed, purse dangling from her arm, moving as if she were partnered with Fred Astaire. Looks like she enjoyed the open bar.

Good deed for the day done, I gave the song an early fade, thanked the crowd, congratulated the bride and groom one more time, and turned off the power. Get me the hell out of here.

As I piled boxes onto my travel cart, daydreaming about my warm bed, I saw my dancing friend heading toward me. Oh, please, don’t be a hanger-on. Don’t let her be as strange as her dancing.

“Thanks for playing that song,” she said, catching her breath. “It was my husband’s and my song...we always danced to it…This Tuesday is six weeks since he died. My name’s Caroline, by the way,” her hand offering a wave as she turned to leave.

“You’re welcome,” I managed.

Cart in tow, I headed out as some young man—her nephew, perhaps—helped Caroline with her coat. She opened her purse, fished out keys, and headed out the door alone.

After loading the van, I took hold of its heavy rear door, ready to slam an end to the day. But something made me stop and I climbed back in to grab my Neil Diamond tape. On the ride home, I listened to “Caroline” over and over, hearing its final verse as if for the first time.

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…but now I look at the night
and it don’t seem so lonely,

we fill it up with only two

And when I hurt,
hurting runs off my shoulders,
how can I hurt when holding you

One…touching one…reaching out…touching me…touching you

Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good.

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Do you have a song that reminds you of a friend, relative or person you met only once, but who forever changed your life? Share your story in the comments below.