Few songs in pop music have captured the melancholy ache of homesickness as well as Paul Simon's poignant "Homeward Bound." The song also goes a long way to dispel the glamour myth of a musician on tour. Simon even turns the lyric on himself, taking the romantic troubadour-poet image down a notch, capturing the self-doubt and insecurity that accompanies such intense loneliness: "Tonight I'll sing my songs again/I'll play the game and pretend/But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity/Like emptiness in harmony/I need someone to comfort me/Homeward bound/I wish I was/Homeward bound/Home, where my thought's escaping/Home, where my music's playing/Home, where my love lies waiting/Silently for me."
The myth has it that the song was written by Simon in a train station in Widnes in Northern England; in fact, there is apparently a plaque at the station commemorating this. But it is true that Simon wrote it sometime during a 1965 solo tour of England, while he had been based in London. He told writer Paul Zollo that the song "was written in Liverpool when I was traveling. What I like about that is that it has a very clear memory of Liverpool station and the streets of Liverpool and the club I played at and me at the age of 22." He has also told other interviewers that it reflects the whole feeling of being on that tour, one that he certainly felt sitting in the station at Widnes, as well as telling Hit Parader magazine, "I missed my girl and my friends. It was kind of depressing. I was living out of suitcases, getting on trains every day and going to the next place...I got very homesick for London."
The arrangement builds each line: the first verse lines beginning softly on descending half-step chords; the melodies and chord progressions on the second lines rise, growing more powerful and tense as they ascend into the almost bouncy, country-ish chorus. The original studio version, from their third LP, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme (1967), is still based around the acoustic guitar that was the staple of their Dylan-influenced folk sound prior to their first acoustic/electric hybrid, Sounds of Silence (1965). But like Dylan, the duo was also under the spell of the Beatles, and they flesh out their arrangements with a full pop-band instrumentation, with the aid of Dylan producer Bob Johnston. The bass was played by the legendary Carol Kaye.
And, as usual, the harmonies are the thing on "Homeward Bound"; the two longtime Everly Brothers fans blend their voices seemingly effortlessly, with Simon's soft voice layered and intertwined with the even more angelic-voiced Art Garfunkel's high harmony. The live, non-band versions of the song offer an even more sensitive reading of the song, the voices remaining quiet for the chorus. Even the quiet instrumentation on Concert in Central Park treats the song a little more gently than the original.