In a time where a person’s whereabouts can be easily tracked by a cell phone, credit card, or other electronic device, the song “America” by Simon and Garfunkel would be very different if written today. Like most of their work, “America” is another beautifully-written and poetic example of Simon and Garfunkel’s music. Written by Paul Simon, it combines feel, melody, phrasing and lyrics that perfectly suit the song’s premise: two characters on a road trip across America. And like any great piece of art, it takes the listener on a journey in more ways than one.
The song is set in the late 1960s and follows the narrator, (for argument’s sake: Paul himself), and a female named Kathy from Saginaw, Michigan, through Pittsburgh and ends up further south in The Garden State. In total, three states are mentioned (Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) as the listener can trace the line of their journey from the writer’s clever dispersing of the three locations in few spots throughout the song.
In the first verse the two travelers “[buy] a pack of cigarettes” and a snack and begin to “look for America,” which is the song’s central theme. Imagine the lyrics if written today by two millenials. The most obvious problem is the storyteller’s references to smoking. A once glamorous and rebellious image of the 1950s movie idol would now be a major issue during this tale about adventure-seeking and the growing pains of adolescence.
“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat. You smoked the last one an hour ago.”
We can see the writer struggling with this dilemma: (Ugh, no, don’t do that. If we attempt to smoke on the bus, we’ll be thrown off.) In 1968 a once casual interaction between two characters poses new challenges in 2015. For one, smoking is barely allowed outdoors today, let alone on a crowded bus. Secondly, while there are many options for the orally fixated to suck and blow “harmless” vapor through an electronic cigarette, many places and patrons still frown upon it. Some studies even show the vapor and nicotine content in similar smoking substitutes is equally or more harmful. Maybe in today’s “America” we’d end up with the lines: “hand me my vapor, don’t throw it, it cost eighty dollars. You checked your cell phone a second ago…” So, on a bus trip through modern-day America: looking cool is out. And forget fulfilling a nicotine craving, you’ll have to wait until the next bathroom break and stand behind the truck stop by the garbage dumpsters.
Aside from smoking, the couple imagines back stories and assigns them to the other passengers as playful entertainment during the song’s bridge.
“Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces. She said the man in the gargardine suit was a spy.”
While observing a peculiar man in a “gabardine suit,” the two decide he may be an undercover agent. Paul then tells Kathy to “be careful, his bow tie is really a camera,” and this poses another challenge, particularly for the photographer. Today, most camera users rely on their mobile phones to snap a picture. If this person, posing as a spy, were concealing his phone under his tie: how would he reach the cell phone’s trigger? The clumsy and obvious setting up of a selfie-stick would be out of the question. So imagine singing instead: “I said with cellphones, there’s no way of hiding a camera.” (So much for mystery and adventure.)
The first line in the song’s final verse could have been taken two ways in the past:
“Kathy I’m lost I said, though I know you are sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”
Before cell phones and location tracking, google earth and credit cart swiping, a casual listener may take the narrator’s words as meaning he is literally lost; today that would be impossible.
The young narrator then proclaims his feelings of lacking something inside and a longing for something but not knowing quite what it is. Any young person today, who drags themselves away from their video game or computer screen, should relate to this universal dilemma. Or are we all growing up so fast that even the loss and longing of adolescence is a thing of the past.
The song “America” by Simon and Garfunkel is one of several from a body of work that captures the melancholy of young people seeking a purpose or sense of clarity by running away or hitting the road. It is also a beautifully written refrain about seeking an idyllic America and the promise it once boasted. Its theme is universal: looking for ourselves through a deliberate change of scenery or by taking a closer look at our surroundings. But progress and technology have changed our landscape and they way we get through the day to day. The road less traveled is lined with identical strip malls and wi-fi internet access. Today’s rider, with cell phone in hand, has a car battery adapter for every communication device so that getting lost is almost impossible. And sometimes, getting lost is the only way to really find ourselves.
America by Paul Simon, 1968
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’s pies,
And walked off
To look for America.
“Kathy”, I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
Michigan seems like a dream to me now.
It took me four days
To hitch-hike from Saginaw.
“I’ve come to look for America.”
Laughing on the bus,
Playing games with the faces,
She said the man in the gabardine suit
Was a spy.
I said, “Be careful,
His bow tie 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 know she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.”
Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike
The’ve all come
To look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.