AMERICA

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“MICHIGAN SEEMS LIKE A DREAM TO ME NOW”

Hello, world! I know it’s been almost a year since my last post, but a lot has happened in that time span. To give a quick update on what I’ve been up to the past year: I graduated from SUNY Geneseo in May and said goodbye to the small and charming cow-town that I had come to know for the last four years (saying goodbye to my porch and the view of the sunset over the valley was the hardest part). Next, I endured what felt like the never-ending slump of post-grad life, which I wasn’t nearly prepared for. I felt super lost and stuck this Summer without a job or a career ahead of me, and I felt like my life was not heading anywhere. After working a sus (for lack of a better word) cafè job and an even more sus marketing job, I decided it was time to go after what I really wanted to do: work in college admissions. Yes, I understand this is not everyone’s typical dream job, but after volunteering with Geneseo’s admissions office for four years, I knew this was the path I wanted to walk for now. I embarked on the admissions job search and somehow found myself interviewing for the University of Colorado, Boulder. Having never been to Colorado before, I was excited, knowing there would be so much to love about it (who doesn’t love the mountains and never-ending adventures?) In November, I fled the U.S. to visit my sister in Spain as I waited out the decision from CU Boulder. Experiencing Spain for the first time was incredible. I visited Madrid, Valencia and Sagunto. I saw ancient ruins, climbed through the Sierra Calderona mountains, listened to street violinists in stone and brick alleyways, and ate a lot of paella. I even got to touch the Meditteranean Sea. After a week abroad, I made it back to America (ha, see what I did there?) and started my trek to Colorado land. Touching down in Denver, I got my first glimpse of this amazing state and I truly couldn’t believe I had just up and left from everything I had ever known. With two suitcases and a backpack in hand, I departed the plane and headed to my apartment in Broomfield, CO where I now reside. It’s been a heck of a year but I have learned many lessons and faced challenges that I am proud to say have made me into a stronger and more confident person. Moving away from my family and hometown to a place where I knew nothing and no one was hard. And I still get waves of homesickness and sometimes loneliness as I continue to navigate this new life. But, I’ve met some really great people so far and hope to continue building connections to the people here and the nature that surrounds me. So, as I sit here in quarantine, I figured starting my blog back up again would be the perfect way to spend my free time. I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy during this global pandemic…remember to wash ya hands!

Let’s Dive In

 “America” is a song performed by music duo Simon & Garfunkel (who were originally known as “Tom & Jerry,” fun fact). Simon & Garfunkel were a folk-rock duo originating in New York City and consisted of members Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Simon & Garfunkel were famous for their tight harmonies, beautiful melodies and captivating lyrics in the 1960’s. Originally, the two met in elementary school, where they first learned to harmonize together. After their breakup in 1970 due to artistic disagreements, the two went their separate ways but continued to write and perform their own music, though Paul Simon is the more recognized solo artist of the two.

“America” was written and composed by Paul Simon, who was the primary song-writer of the duo. It was recorded and released from their fourth studio album “Bookends” in 1968. The song’s birth was inspired by a road-trip that Simon had taken with his then girlfriend Kathy Chitty in 1964. They had spent five days together driving through the country. The song calls out a few specific places: Saginaw, Michigan and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Simon had actually written the song in 1966 when he found himself in Saginaw, Michigan to do a show for the Saginaw YMCA. Bob Dyer, the man who had booked Simon for the Saginaw show,  noted:

“I asked Paul Simon if they were still charging the $1,250 we paid them to play and he said they were getting about four times that much then. Then I asked him why he hadn’t pulled out of the show, and he said he had to see what a city named Saginaw looked like. Apparently, he liked it; he wrote ‘America’ while he was here, including that line about taking four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.” 

So, now we know the story behind the shoutout to Saginaw, Michigan, though I am still unsure why Simon chose for the narrator and Kathy to meet in Pittsburgh before embarking on their journey. If anyone can figure that one out, let me know!

The Story

Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together…

The first time I heard this song, I thought it was pretty. But then I truly listened to this song and I thought it was beautiful. I thought: how can a song with lyrics so simple tell a story so, so complex? It’s no doubt the first line pulls the listener in, much like how a good book pulls a reader in by the very first line. I think what I like about this first line so much is that we don’t exactly know what the story will be about just yet, but by the end of the song, we realize why this line was put in at the start. This song is ultimately unraveling the story of two young adults looking to fulfill the “American dream” and them quickly realizing that the American dream does not indeed exist. It’s a myth; an empty promise. And marriage is one part of that idealistic life. So, the song starts with that promise of being in love and getting married, which is supposed to lead to a happily ever after…right? Isn’t that the start of the American dream?

As our protagonist’s start their journey road-tripping across America, boarding a Greyhound with some pies and cigarettes, they are optimistic and joyous.

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 bowtie is really a camera

The narrator and Kathy, his confidant, are creating stories about their bus-mates and laughing together. These lines create a sense of child-like innocence; a joyous wonder that encompasses them. It’s that feeling of initial excitement to any beginning or start to a new journey; a naivety about what lies ahead. Think about any road trip you have been on: the first hour or two always starts with blasting your favorite music and chatting away with whoever is filling your company. It’s pointing at every cool tree along the highway, every new city sign. But, as those initial hours fade and you start to realize the length of your journey ahead, you stop counting highway signs. You turn the music down a little quieter. Perhaps the friend in your passenger seat starts to fall asleep, and suddenly, it’s just you and the road and the countless hours you have left behind the wheel as the sunset turns into stars above you.

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

This is what starts to happen to our narrator as the bus carries on. They have been traveling so long that they’ve smoked all their cigarettes without even realizing, trying to pass the time. They stop interacting as much and release themselves to their own activities and thoughts. The day fades to night as the road beneath them continues to turn. I personally think that first line about the cigarette and the raincoat is genius. It’s purely just dialogue. It’s straight-forward, it’s simple. It’s just a moment in time. But it says so much.

Kathy,  I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

Have you ever said the truth out loud, knowing no one can hear you? It’s kind of like that old philosophical question, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Scientifically, yes it makes a sound, as it sends off air waves. But, what is a sound if it cannot be perceived or observed?

If Kathy cannot hear him, is he really admitting to anything? Or, does saying this out loud, regardless of who can and cannot hear, mean he has admitted his truth to the world? I fully never expect there to be an answer to these questions, but I do want to kind of get y’all thinking about it. When I think about it…there are so many things about myself that only I know; so many thoughts, so many feelings. And if I am the only one to know these things, does that mean they exist in the world? Or is it only until these things are heard by another person that they are real; that they are known?

Either way, as the listener and omniscient presence in this song, we know the narrator’s truth. And we see that as his time across America continues, he is starting to feel the depth of what his journey really is. He is starting to realize that maybe it is not America he seeks, but himself.

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America

Is America just one car sitting behind the other in New Jersey traffic? Is it just people, one by one, going through the motions of daily life because they are just as lost and empty as the other? Are people truly looking for America, or looking for themselves? We see here the narrator is starting to realize that America is not a pedestal; that promised dreams are sometimes just broken ambitions; that perhaps everyone is looking for something that does not actually exist.

The 1960’s & The Counterculture

We must keep in mind that this song was released in 1968, the same year that both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. In fact, the song was released one day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Additionally, 1968 was a prime year for the growing American opposition for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The counterculture anti-war movement was continuing to grow as the youth were advocating for peace; not just overseas, but in America as well. Peaceful protests were being turned into riots, innocent youth were being shot. The counterculture youth were not only advocating for peace, but were continuing to question societal normatives of the past, including women’s rights, sexuality, the use of psychedelic drugs, free love, and of course, the American Dream. Youth were starting to question the generation before them, creating counter-culture clashes between the “old” and the “young”; between authority and every-day people. The song truly captured that essence of turmoil, confusion and restlessness that 1960’s America had faced. It encompassed both the optimistic and hopeful nature of that era along with the looming fear of loneliness and the unknown.  American Songwriter wrote, “like all road trips, (the song) tends to reveal as much about the participants as it does about the lands being traversed.”

I would be lying if I said the 1960’s counterculture didn’t intrigue the hell out of me. It is my absolute favorite part of U.S. history to learn about. I think some of the most amazing songs ever written came from the counterculture era. I find protest music from the 60’s and 70’s so fascinating. And although I don’t believe Paul Simon was as obvious as Bob Dylan in terms of protest song-writing, I do believe “America” is in it’s own way, a protest anthem. And you may or may not agree, but that is okay because there really isn’t a solid answer. It’s no “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young by any means. But it’s a similar concept in it’s own subtle way. I think I’m just really fascinated by the way music was disseminated during this era to spread concepts, ideas, knowledge and peace. Music was extremely important in shaping shared ideals and bringing people together during this time. It was a way for voices to be heard; for sharing a universal feeling. Perhaps the most bittersweet part of it all is just the realization that without sadness and suffering and hurt and pain, beautiful music like this would not exist. I think about that all the time.

Wrapping Up

I do believe this has been one of my longer, if not longest, blog-posts to date, so I do want to start wrapping it up a bit. I usually like to have a whole section about the musicality of each song, but for this one I will keep it simple. It starts with a soft harmonious hum;  delicate in nature, like the calm before a storm. We are then introduced to the guitars, which dance together in both strumming patterns and riffing. Suddenly, a booming blend of organ, bass, and perhaps saxophone or flute (I honestly can’t really tell) overwhelm the chorus, before de-crescendoing back down to guitar during the protagonist’s release to their own thoughts. Then slowly, the buildup proceeds again to the chorus where we hear cymbals crashing over and over to emphasize the repetition of the line “they’ve all come to look for America.” Here, we also hear Simon & Garfunkel’s harmonies separately for the first time, as Garfunkel’s voice trails behind Simon’s, creating a sense of chaos and staggered energy, before releasing and returning together again. The music then slowly fades out, like a lingering thought that has never been completed; an unanswered question. I can only assume this is due to the fact that our narrator is left empty-handed in the end, alone with his thoughts, unable to find what he was looking for. But we can only hope he did.

So, there you have it; a little history on the song and my take on the lyrics and the story. I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this beautiful song and whether or not you enjoyed learning some things about it. Lastly, remember to take care of yourselves during this time. Wash your hands, spend time on that hobby you’ve been neglecting, and allow yourself to watch some good movies or catch up on that sleep you’ve been deprived of. If it’s safe to do so, go out on some walks or hikes; clear your head and get some fresh air. This is an opportunity for us to spend some more time with ourselves and cater to what we have been neglecting. I know this isn’t an easy time for everyone; I am thankful and fortunate to have a job that allows me to work from home and still receive my paycheck every month. But, I know not everyone is as fortunate. If you are in a position to do so, here is a link to a list of organizations that any amount of donation would help make a difference:

https://www.fidelitycharitable.org/guidance/disaster-relief/how-to-help-novel-coronavirus.html

I’ll leave you all off with some videos to check out, as always. Thanks for stopping by!

Listen to the song here!

Check out Simon & Garfunkel’s ’81 performance of America, live from Central Park

3 Comments

  1. Wow. Hana, what an amazing article. You’re such a passionate and talented writer. Please never stop. So honored to know you. ~your #1 fan

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lorenzo!! Thank you! I still remember talking about my blog with you in Crickets and you always encouraging me to keep at it. Thanks for being such a pal:) I appreciate it a lot !

    Like

  3. Nailed it Hana – great post! ‘America’ is definitely a metaphor for pursuing the (elusive) American Dream. Reminiscent of the of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ or songs, similarly inspired, by The Doors, Springsteen, Tom Petty, Neil Young et al, who search for their place in the sun. I think Paul Simon is one of the best songwriters EVER. His rhythms. lyrics, phrasing, & music are genius and have always blown me away. Look forward to your next blog-post!
    -Eddie Ketewomoke

    Like

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