Song of the Day #1,191: ‘America’ – Simon & Garfunkel

Simon & Garfunkel’s third album, 1968’s Bookends, marked a major stylistic departure for the duo.

The straightforward acoustic folk (and folk rock) of their first few albums gave way to a record very much crafted in the studio. The songs on this album feature distorted instruments, samples, skits and interviews. It’s a cross between Peter, Paul and Mary, National Public Radio and Eminem.

Bookends is a concept album at heart, though I’m not sure the concept holds up across its full length. Side One starts and ends with ‘Bookends Theme,’ a gentle guitar melody that is echoed in the moving track ‘Old Friends,’ about two elderly men who sit on a park bench “like bookends.”

The rest of the first side touches on issues of mortality and the connections between people, whether it’s the desperate mother of ‘Save the Life of My Child’ or the uncertain lovers of ‘Overs’ and today’s SOTD.

‘America’ is one of my favorite Paul Simon songs. It’s so simple and yet so profound. Describing a trip from Michigan to New York City, it revels in the small details: Mrs. Wagner pies, a magazine, a man in a gabardine suit, the moon rising over an open field.

These snapshots add up to a portrait of hope and despair, summed up in a line of dialogue toward the end: “Kathy, I’m lost… I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” It’s fitting that the song’s protagonist speaks these words to a woman he knows is asleep.

The final image of the New Jersey Turnpike crowded with people who have “all come to look for America” is simultaneously uplifting and depressing. They share common aspirations, but they’re isolated in their cars, lacking meaningful connections, equally empty, aching and lost.

(Note: One interesting aspect of this song that I’d never realized until now… it is entirely without rhymes)

Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes, and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America

Cathy, I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
And I’ve come to look for America

Laughin’ on the bus, playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gaberdine suit was a spy
I said be careful, his bowtie is really a camera

Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat
We smoked the last one an hour ago
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and I’m aching and I don’t know why
Countin’ the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America, all come to look for America

Countin’ the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America, all come to look for America
All come to look for America

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,191: ‘America’ – Simon & Garfunkel

  1. Dana says:

    This is one of my favorite songs from Simon as well. And that’s a cool observation about the lack of rhymes.

    I wonder if any politicians back in the day tried to co-opt this song as they did later with something like “Born in the USA,” While, as you say, there is optimism laced into the verses, there is also a good dose of sadness and desperation. But, more than both of those, there is simply beauty in the words and music.

  2. pegclifton says:

    It is interesting that there are no rhymes; just goes to show how talented Simon is– he can make it sound like poetry.

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