America (Simon & Garfunkel song)

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"America"
Single by Simon & Garfunkel
from the album Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits
B-side "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her"
Released August 10, 1972
Format 7" single
Recorded February 1, 1968[1]
Genre
Length 3:34
Label Columbia
Writer(s)
Producer(s)
Simon & Garfunkel singles chronology
"El Condor Pasa (If I Could)"
(1970)
"America"
(1972)
"For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her" (live)
(1972)

"America" is a song by American music duo Simon & Garfunkel from their fourth studio album, Bookends (1968). Produced by the duo themselves and Roy Halee, the song was later issued as a single in 1972 to promote the release of Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. The song was written by Paul Simon and concerns young lovers hitchhiking their way across the United States, in search of "America," one both literal and physical.

The song has been regarded as one of Simon's strongest songwriting efforts and one of the duo's best songs. A 2014 Rolling Stone reader's poll ranked it the group's fourth best song.

Background[edit]

"America" was among the last songs written for Bookends, when production assistant John Simon left Columbia Records, forcing Simon, Garfunkel, and producer Roy Halee to complete the record themselves.[1] In 2004, Bob Dyer, a former disc jockey from Saginaw, Michigan, explained the song's genesis in an interview with The Saginaw News. According to Dyer, Simon wrote the song while visiting the town in 1966, when he booked him for Y-A-Go-Go, a concert series hosted by the Saginaw YMCA.[2]

I asked Paul Simon if they were still charging the $1,250 we paid them to play and he said they were getting about four times that much then. Then I asked him why he hadn't pulled out, and he said he had to see what a city named Saginaw looked like. Apparently, he liked it; he wrote 'America' while he was here, including that line about taking four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.[2]

Composition[edit]

"America" follows two lovers as they travel the country, looking for America.

Problems playing this file? See media help.
The song references the New Jersey Turnpike, seen here in 1973, five years after the song was written.

The song opens, on Bookends, with a crossfade from "Save the Life of My Child" (this effect is not present on single versions, which begin with a "clean" open). The song follows two young lovers — "an apparently impromptu romantic traveling alliance" — as they board a Greyhound bus "to look for America."[3] It is a protest song that "creates a cinematic vista that tells of the singer's search for a literal and physical America that seems to have disappeared, along with the country’s beauty and ideals."[4] The song includes reference to Kathy Chitty, Simon’s former girlfriend, which links the song autobiographically to another earlier hit, "Homeward Bound".[4] The protagonist, admitting to his sleeping partner that he feels lost, is reduced to "counting cars on the New Jersey Turnpike," concluding that they have also come to look for America.[3] Pete Fornatale interprets this lyric as a "metaphor to remind us all of the lost souls wandering the highways and byways of mid-sixties America, struggling to navigate the rapids of despair and hope, optimism and disillusionment."[5] The song also makes reference to the town of Saginaw, Michigan, with the protagonist seemingly hailing from the town, but "[seeking] his fortunes elsewhere."[6]

Art Garfunkel once described the song as "young lovers with their adventure and optimism."[7] The song has been described as a"folk song with a lilting soprano saxophone in its refrain as a small pipe organ paints acoustic guitars, framed by the ghostly traces of classic American Songbook pop structures."[8]

Reception[edit]

Stephen Holden, in reviewing Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits in 1972, wrote that "'America' […] was Simon's next major step forward. It is three and a half minutes of sheer brilliance, whose unforced narrative, alternating precise detail with sweeping observation evokes the panorama of restless, paved America and simultaneously illuminates a drama of shared loneliness on a bus trip with cosmic implications."[9] Thom Jurek of Allmusic described the song's central question as an "ellipsis, a cipher, an unanswerable question," a song in which "sophisticated harmonic invention is toppled by its message."[8] David Nichols, in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, called the song "a splendid vignette of a road trip by young lovers; both intimate and epic in scale, it traces an inner journey from naive optimism to more mature understanding."[10]

Disc jockey and author Pete Fornatale describes "America" as one of Paul Simon's "greatest writing achievements in this phase of his career."[7] In 2014, a Rolling Stone readers poll ranked it fourth among the duo's best compositions, with the magazine writing, "it captured America's sense of restlessness and confusion during the year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as the escalation of the war in Vietnam," declaring it one of their most "beloved" songs.[11]

Legacy[edit]

In 2010, lyrics from the song began appearing spray-painted on vacant buildings and abandoned factories in the town of Saginaw, Michigan, which is mentioned in the song.[2] The group of artists, Paint Saginaw, decided to paint the phrases after the population had dwindled vastly, noting that the song became rather "homesick" for the town’s residents.[6] The song's entire lyrics are painted on 28 buildings in the city, including railroad tracks and bridge supports.[2]

Cover versions[edit]

Yes and 1-2-3 / Clouds arrangements[edit]

"America"
Song by Yes from the album The New Age of Atlantic
Released 1972
Genre Progressive rock
Length 10:30 (album version)
4:12 (single version)
Label Atlantic Records K20024
Writer Paul Simon
Producer Yes and Eddie Offord
The New Age of Atlantic track listing
"Sam Stone"
(10)
"America"
(11)

The song was rearranged by the progressive rock band Yes in 1971. Yes added elements typical to progressive rock, such as changes in time signature and long instrumental segments, while dropping the song's original repeat and fade ending. At one point bassist Chris Squire quotes "America" from West Side Story in the intro. The complete Yes version clocks in at ten and a half minutes. This recording first appeared in 1972 on the sampler album The New Age of Atlantic and was later included on the compilation album Yesterdays in 1975, the box set In a Word: Yes (1969–) in 2002, and on the 2003 re-issue of their album Fragile. An edited version of this recording lasting 4 minutes was released as a single and hit #46 on the pop chart. It also appeared on the Yesyears boxed set and its condensed version Yesstory, along with The Ultimate Yes: 35th Anniversary Collection. The edited version was also included as a bonus track on the re-issue of Close to the Edge. A live version of the song was included on 1996's Keys to Ascension.

The original version of "America" came from the band Clouds.[12] In their earlier incarnation as 1-2-3, they had performed a re-written version of the song that included all the elements later used by Yes: changes in time signature, classical interludes, newly written segments etc. A live tape exists of this being performed at the Marquee in April 1967, prior to the release of any known recording by any artist, including the writer himself. Paul Simon had recorded demos at Levy studios in London in 1965, and tapes of these were passed to the band by a studio engineer (Stu Francis of Radio Luxembourg). In 1966, 1-2-3 also performed Sounds of Silence from this same tape.[13]

David Bowie performance[edit]

David Bowie performed a minimalist version of the song to open The Concert for New York City in October 2001. Bowie performed seated on the floor, center stage, with a microphone and a Suzuki Omnichord. Bowie was actually in attendance at the Marquee during 1967 when 1-2-3 (later Clouds) performed this song. He was a friend of Billy Ritchie, the keyboard player/writer, and the band were also at the time, playing a song by a then-unknown David Bowie, I Dig Everything.[14]

Other versions[edit]

Tenor Josh Groban recorded it on his live album, Live at The Greek. He also played it at the A Capitol Fourth concert on July 4, 2011. Vocalist Alyssa Graham replaces Simon’s “Kathy” with "Douglas" in her version, the leadoff track on her 2008 album Echo. Lucy Wainwright Roche plays it, together with The Roches, at her 2010 album Lucy. The band America also released a recording of the song on their 2011 album Back Pages. The Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit performed the song in honor of Paul Simon at the 2012 Polar Music Prize award ceremony, which earned them a standing ovation from Paul Simon himself.[15] David Bowie performed the song solo, cross-legged and playing a Casio Keyboard at the Concert for New York in 2001.[16]

Chart positions[edit]