Simon & Garfunkel

America

Song Review by

The pivotal use of "America" in the soundtrack to the film Almost Famous (2000) continued a trend that was started in part by Mike Nichols' use of Simon & Garfunkel songs as a plot device in the 1967 film The Graduate. The former film uses "America" -- released originally on the 1968 LP song cycle Bookends -- in the context of a young person leaving home in the restless late '60s, a microcosm of a whole societal shift. And this is also kind of how the song itself works, with the blank-verse lyrics open, offering small, personal details, almost in jokes: "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/'Kathy,' I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh/'Michigan seems like a dream to me now.'" It seems like a recollection of a pleasant trip taken by young lovers, an apparently fictional trip with Simon and his girlfriend from his time in England, Kathy Chitty (Simon has explained that, contrary to popular myth, the trip never occurred). But with a grandiose line like "to look for America" and the grand-scale musical arrangement, "America" is quite obviously something more ambitious than a personal postcard; Simon was observing the trends of his generation -- the physical restlessness and spiritual bankruptcy that the wanderlust signified. Simon, having received training in Brill Building songwriting as a young demo-singer-for-hire, merges -- in the song's masterful third verse -- his Bob Dylan-spurred ambition as an "important" songwriter with his commercial and traditional pop songcraft: "'Kathy, I'm lost,' I said, though I knew she was sleeping/I'm empty and aching and I don't know why/Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/They've all gone to look for America." The first line seems like yet another bit of innocuous dialogue between fellow travelers. But with the next line, the song climaxes lyrically; it might simply be a tinge that a relationship is coming to an end, but on a larger scale, Simon feels an emptiness, realizing -- in the depressing light of the New Jersey Turnpike -- the pointlessness of his travel and his search, which is not fulfilling his inner ache. He might even possibly be predicting a similar dead end for his peers. But it is not just a personal disappointment; the narrator goes looking for an America that Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac have found before him, and he finds no such place; tritely speaking, there is no "there" there. Perhaps not coincidentally, the cinematic song came out the year after The Graduate, a film which explored similar themes: alienation, emptiness, disappointment, and so on. The lyrical deftness that Simon demonstrates is almost overshadowed by the orchestrated arrangement, a 6/2 folk rhythm that contains the lovely, lilting, sing-song melody. It begins softly, with a rhythm, tempo, and melody that Elliot Smith seems to have taken as a template for much of his songwriting -- though certainly the antecedent came from the later Beatles records (especially the drum fills). In fact, "America" can be taken as a "bookend' of the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home," which offers a brilliant look at the grown-child-leaving-parent paradigm from the point of view of the parents. We imagine their daughter going off and finding happiness and success in a bigger world than the one she shared with her parents. But that loss of innocence, an innocence which cannot be regained, is a common theme shared with "America," as well as other Simon songs like "Mrs. Robinson" in its lines: "Where have you gone Joe Di Maggio?/Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you." By the time "America" reaches the second chorus, and again for the final chorus, the arrangement stokes up into something approximating a robust sea shanty -- with cymbal crashes and layered harmonies -- thus forming a second template for '70s singer/songwriters; this time one with less subtlety by Neil Diamond on songs like his "America" and some of Billy Joel's early, folky moments, like "Piano Man."

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Bookends 1968 Columbia 3:35
Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits 1972 Columbia 3:34
Collected Works 1981 Columbia 3:31
The Simon and Garfunkel Collection: 17 of Their All-Time Greatest Recordings 1981 Smm 3:28
No Image 1995
Various Artists
La Mejor Musica
Old Friends 1997 Columbia / Legacy 0:00
The Best of Simon & Garfunkel 1999 Columbia / Legacy 3:37
The Very Best of Simon & Garfunkel: Tales from New York 2000 Columbia / Legacy 3:36
Almost Famous 2000
Original Soundtrack
Dreamworks SKG 3:37
The Columbia Studio Recordings, 1964-1970 2001 Legacy / Columbia 3:35
No Image 2002 Sony Music Distribution 3:36
Freedom: Songs from the Hearts of America 2002
Various Artists
Columbia 4:35
The Essential Simon & Garfunkel 2003 Columbia / Legacy 3:37
No Image 2004 Sony Music Distribution 3:32
The No. 1 70s Pop Album 2007
Various Artists
Music Club Deluxe 3:37
Bookends/Sounds of Silence 2009 Legacy 3:35
The Pop Years: 1972-1973 2009
Various Artists
Crimson Productions 3:35
The Essential 3.0 2010 Columbia / Legacy / Sony Legacy 3:37
Pure... America 2011
Various Artists
Sony Music 3:36
Playlist: The Very Best of Simon & Garfunkel 2014 Columbia / Legacy 3:37
The Complete Albums Collection 2014 Sony Legacy 4:56
Tripping Down the Alleyways 2017 Go Faster Records 3:35
No Image
Various Artists
Geffen 3:34