The Infinite Jukebox: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’


Every time I play ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ on YouTube, it automatically leads on to ‘America’. And I let it play and I usually sing along with it, a thing that should only be done in private since I can carry a tune like a string bag can carry water.
I remember that I first heard the song at school, when two of my year-mates performed it on the stage of the school hall, a duet on acoustic guitars for some sort of entertainment the pupils were putting on, and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it because they seemed to flatten the tune out of it, nor hear what they were singing. I only remember it was ‘America’ because they’d talked about rehearsing it.
I don’t think I knew it was by Simon and Garfunkel, or even who they were. I have a vivid memory of hearing ‘Sound of Silence’ on the old radio at Brigham Street, and getting spooked by the lyrics. All this stuff passed by me.
But I love ‘America’, perhaps above everything else Paul and Artie did, except of course ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’. I love its slow haziness, it’s rise and fall, the sense of space between the instruments. Most of all I love the place I am taken to in the song.
It’s a road song, heir to Kerouac and forerunner to Springsteen. Where ‘Bridge’ is Art Garfunkel’s song, ‘America’ is Paul Simon’s. He and his girlfriend Kathy, of ‘Kathy’s Song’ and ‘Homeward Bound’, are on a Greyhound bus, travelling at night. They’ve picked up the bus in Pittsburgh and we never get to learn where they’re headed, two lovers with a pack of cigarettes and a joke about marrying their ‘fortunes’ together.
But where they’re going has no place on any map you could buy over the counter, because they’re all gone to look for America, and in that place and time, America was something you found in your mind, the great dream of what the country meant to you, and what you saw it could be, not what it was.
Paul and Kathy are travelling a road that will take them forever. They joke about other passengers, they smoke their cigarettes, he wakes from a dream, lost and confused as she continues to sleep, and we see her behind the words, long, dishevelled dark hair, head on his shoulder as he looks drawn, and cramped, the moon risen over an open field holding them in its cold light..
Everyone around them is on the same journey, that quest to find who you are and what you’ll be and where you are. They count the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, counting them in to their quest. Though travelling in space, they are really travelling in their souls, which is what the song means when it runs out of words and it fades into that endless road to the sound of an organ wrapping itself around the melody, cocooning it against the inevitable.
Nobody found America, not that year, not since. Seventeen years later, Talking Heads took the same road, but by then we all knew that the destination was unattainable, and they called it for what it was, a ‘Road to Nowhere’.
Out there, the Pauls and Kathys still ride, still take the piss out of the weirdos who accompany them, still sleep fitfully and awkwardly, along night highways that maybe, one day, if we remember how to be better than this and to care for one another and write words that can penetrate to the heart of this need to reach a fabled land, we may finally arrive at that land of pride and hope and honesty and equality that each of us calls by a private name but that many call America, the America that has never been but still lies beyond our horizon.
Each time I let one song transition into another, I become a rider on the same lost Greyhound.

4 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’

  1. Beautiful eulogy to one of my favourite songs. You capture it perfectly. The verse

    “Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
    And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
    Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
    They’ve all come to look for America”

    …never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s that perpetual journey for something just out of reach.

    Have you heard the First Aid Kit version? It’s a fine cover.

    1. I’ve listened to it now and whilst the girls do harmonise well, I’m still not won over. A large part of that is sheer familiarity with the original, but a good bit of it is that First Aid Kit are just singing an attractive song: Paul and Art were living the times it describes and that can’t be duplicated or replaced.

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