Songs about places are often most successful when they focus on the small-scale and accessible: a road, a bridge, a cafe. It is the detail that can make a song suddenly seem relevant to the listener. In St Etienne’s London Belongs to Me, the potential scale of the subject is brought down to ground level: ‘Took a trip to Camden Town, Walked down Parkway and settled down in the shade of a willow tree’- a little touch that places it presumably at the edge of Regents Park.
When songs tackle the large and grandiose, about a whole country or even a continent, the risk of failure is higher. If the song comes from within the country, it risks straying over the line of being overly patriotic, sentimental or myth-making. If it is written from outside, it can end up as a collection of clichés or stereotypes. Toto’s Africa throws in drums echoing, wild dogs, rain, an old man with ancient melodies and Kilimanjaro for good measure. It can also end up, frankly, just silly, as in ‘England swings like a pendulum do, bobbies on bicycles two by two’ (American Roger Miller’s take on England in 1966).
Simon & Garfunkel’s America avoided these pitfalls, largely due to Paul Simon’s skill as a lyricist but also because the song, first issued on their 1968 Bookends album, was in tune with the zeitgeist.(A subsequent release as part of the CBS sampler album, Rock Machine I Love You and as a single in 1972 kept it current for a number of years). The song’s theme, an actual and metaphysical journey to find the true meaning of America, was not original, of course. Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac had gone this way before and John Steinbeck had sought to discover America as it really was in his book, Travels with Charley,(1962) . A year after the Simon and Garfunkel track, the film Easy Rider was to explore a similar journey in search of America. Both saw hope end in disillusionment.
At that time Simon & Garfunkel occupied an ambivalent position in rock music. Some of Paul Simon’s earlier work, like a Church is Burning and He Was My Brother, had made statements as political as anything by Dylan. However, by the late sixties the duo were seen by some as too mainstream to fit easily into the counterculture of the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Regardless, the song caught the mood of the times perfectly. When the song’s narrator says ‘Kathy, I’m lost...I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why’, the words spoke for more than a relationship. They also spoke for the dislocation and loss of those who had believed in the American dream. The same year the American essayist and novelist Joan Dideon took her focus from the famous Yeats poem and described in Slouching Towards Bethlehem the centre of American society falling apart, also concluding that ‘America was lost’
Lyrically, the song shows Simon at his poetic best, using the natural rhythms of conversation to create a story that flows with the music, underpinned by acoustic guitars, organ and the dramatic drum fills of session supremo Hal Blaine. You don’t notice that Simon writes in blank verse with no rhymes. because the words sound naturally spoken: ‘Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat’ .It almost sounds like a short story.
On one level it is a journey on the famous Greyhound bus of two people starting off from Pittsburgh as lovers and nearing their destination, - presumably New York - disillusioned. The ‘Kathy’ in the song was Kathy Chitty, subject of Paul Simon’s 1965 tune Kathy's Song, and pictured on the cover of the Paul Simon Songbook album.
Despite her real existence, however, Simon has said that this particular journey was an imaginary one. The listener is drawn in by the idle conversation between them and the little touches, the cigarettes and Mrs Wagner pies taken on the bus (These were a homemade pie sold in wax paper. Unfortunately. the company went bust three months after this song’s release). As the journey progresses, the grander scale of its meaning becomes clearer, with the sense of loss and emptiness and the sight of the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike also looking for America. Depending on which version you listen to, sometimes the closing coda is ‘all gone to look for America’, sometimes ‘all come to look for America’. Either way,nothing is resolved, there is nothing to find.
Twice I have found that lines from the song have come unbidden into my mind. Once was when hitching back from London to Reading one night, I spent some time by the side of a road waiting for the next lift. The moon rose over an open field, illuminating a white horse standing near the fence. The other was on a visit to New York when I went up with my daughter and partner to visit Woodstock. Driving back into the outskirts of New York we sat stationary whilst the lanes of cars stacked up. It wasn’t the New Jersey Turnpike, of course, but the imagery fitted.
Re-issues and covers of the song kept it alive and in 2000 it also appeared on the sound track of Almost Famous. It will no doubt survive longer: a song about a journey from Saginaw to the outskirts of New York, but also a song also about a country as reality versus myth.