One Song/Three Versions – America

From time to time I like to feature a tune and see how other artists represent it. Today it’s Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”

Stephen Holden, in reviewing Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits in 1972, wrote, “‘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

In April of 1968, S&G released their classic Bookends album. Probably what propelled it into the stratosphere was the inclusion of “Mrs. Robinson,” from the movie The Graduate. (I did a One Song/Three Versions of that song.)

Based somewhat on a true story, “America” tells the tale of Paul Simon and his then-girlfriend Kathy Chitty traveling across the country to “look for America.” One of the lines in the song says, “It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” and as a matter of fact, Simon had recently played there.* So I’m sure the song is a mix of fact and imagination.

And as lovers, he and Kathy travel by bus across the country in a seemingly carefree ride. But this poignant, beautiful lyric tells the real tale:

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 knew she was sleeping
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why”

Here’s the original:

The Concert for New York City was a benefit concert, that took place on October 20, 2001, at Madison Square Garden in response to the September 11 attacks. Aside from performing for charity, the concert was an attempt to honor the first responders from the New York City Fire Department and New York City Police Department, their families, those lost in the attacks, and those who had worked in the ongoing rescue and recovery efforts in the weeks since that time.”

As we all know, David Bowie didn’t quite see the world as the rest of us did. An album of this event was released with Bowie’s unusual take as the lead-off track. (The album doesn’t appear to be available on streaming.) Here he’s playing a Suzuki Omnichord.

The Polar Music Prize was founded in 1989 by the late Stig ”Stikkan” Anderson. As the publisher, lyricist, and manager of ABBA, he played a key role in their enormous success. Its name stems from Anderson’s record label, Polar Music.

The Polar Music Prize is one of the most prestigious and unique music prizes in the world, crossing over musical boundaries and awarded to individuals, groups, and institutions in recognition of exceptional achievements.

Paul Simon was awarded this prize in 2012. Two young ladies who call themselves First Aid Kit, did such a nice version that Simon awarded them a standing ovation and appeared visibly moved. These are two Swedish sisters who appear to have quite the lengthy resume, none of which is on their website, all of which is in Wikipedia.

For the curious, I almost went with the Yes version of “America” but I find it works better closer to the original. But, for a bonus fourth version, it’s here. It’s still damn good and Yessy.

*A group known as ‘Paint Saginaw’ has painted the lyrics of the song on buildings around the city. Also,

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’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 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 come
To look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America

© Paul Simon.

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