America – Simon & Garfunkel

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Song: America
Album: Bookends
Performer: Simon & Garfunkel
Writer: Paul Simon
Year: 1968

Since this is a summer playlist for July, I have to have at least one ‘MERICA song. Unfortunately, most songs that have “America” in the lyrics anywhere are some combination of unbearably patriotic, pandering, and trying too hard to repeat Lee Greenwood’s success. Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” captures an honest reflection on the country that is more true and genuine than the mindlessly nationalistic songs we’re accustomed to hearing.

I was recently reminded of this song while watching Louis C.K.’s new show Horace & Pete. The song provides a backdrop for the climax of an extreme and jarring emotional journey in the show which mirrors the song’s journey from hopefulness to hopelessness. I won’t spoil anything about the series, but the moment is one which stopped my heart and left a knot in my throat.

The message of this song is one of searching. It’s about a couple hitchhiking across the country. They are going in search for America, wanting to explore the vast country. In that journey they are searching for meaning both on a personal level and for the ideals and spirit of the country and its people as a whole.

We follow the narrator and his partner Kathy from them meeting in Pittsburgh, guessing the backstories of passengers on a Greyhound bus, smoking cigarettes… the song opens optimistically and gradually becomes despairing. Near the end, Kathy falls asleep and the narrator feels he can speak more honestly and candidly with her. It is at this point that the song speaks to the heart of America in both 1968 and today:

“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”

In this song America is as much an idea as it is a country. It’s sometimes hard to tell what the collective idea of this country is. It’s something that is currently in the process of being redefined. Sometimes it seems that America might become something that is destructive to the freedom and rights of people who have all come here looking for something better – people who have come here looking for something great, for something beautiful – and maybe those things they came searching for will always be elusive.

Check out the “Summer” playlist I put together on Spotify: