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.

28 thoughts on “One Song/Three Versions – America

      1. I enjoyed First Aid Kit at Glastonbury (on TV) and was impressed so I looked them up on YouTube. Also I’m a big Bowie fan.

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        1. It’s pretty much impossible keeping track these days. I’m into jazzy stuff at present but I’m losing track of new indie and rock bands.

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  1. It’s kind of a weird song to cover since it’s like a diary. I like the Yes version – makes me wish they’d tried a few more covers in their prime. I can’t listen right now but will try to remember to check out the Bowie version later.

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    1. I know what you’re saying about the very personal and specific nature of the song. But think about how many great songs are personal and yet resonate with universal themes. In My Life, If You Could Read My Mind, just about any Joni Mitchell tune, Our House. All based on other people’s relationships but eminently relatable. The list goes on..

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  2. S&G’s Sound of Silence is another one – S&H, Disturbed and Pentatonix.
    Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man – BD, The Byrds, William Shatner.
    Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – LC, Pentatonix, Bob Dylan (only live, not formally recorded, I don’t think)
    House of the Rising Sun – The Animals, Woody Guthrie, and Andy Griffith

    Sorry, my mind went, I went along. That was fun though,

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      1. Don’t tempt me! Wow… that’s like totally something my father and I would spend a day doing! Except, now that I have time, due to covid, he won’t come near me lol

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        1. There is a ‘Categories’ listing on the site’s home page. You will see One Song/Three Versions. Click on that

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  3. Great article! Thanks for the link to the link to the Yes cover too! I love it, it’s weird, I had fragile on LP (not new – from a second hand shop) in the late 70s but don’t remember this track at all!

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  4. First of all, I really dig the original – not too many songs that mention “my” highway, i.e., New Jersey‘s mother road, aka the New Jersey Turnpike!😀

    Bowie hum-ta-ta take is, shall we say, different? But interesting nevertheless.

    The clear winner here are the Swedish sister. With their angelic harmony singing, I can see why Simon was moved!

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    1. Not too many songs that mention the long-gone Mrs. Wagner’s Pies. Curious as to whether you listened to the Yes version. I don’t recall if you’re a prog fan or not.

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      1. Wow, I had no idea Yes covered “America” as well. I’m currently listening to their take – interesting!

        I’ve generally had a complicated relationship with prog rock. Oftentimes, I find it too long-winded, though I acknowledge that musically speaking, there is a lot of sophisticated prog rock out there. Yes and Peter Gabriel era Genesis are among the few prog rock bands I’ve come to like.

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        1. Yes is easily my favorite prog band. And they do great covers. But while this one has some cool stuff, I think they needlessly complicate what is a simple song.

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  5. The only version of this song I know is the Yes version. It was on the Yesterdays album and I was surprised when I read the songwriting credits and seen who wrote it. A few bands like Yes did off beat (for them) covers. I remember Nice doing a cover of Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me’ which I likes a lot.

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    1. That’s funny. That’s probably the least known version, especially since you have to find it in a compilation album. Yes did some really interesting covers.

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      1. I was huge into all the Yes, ELP, Crimson shit. Even got my hair cut like Emerson. He’s on the keys for the Nice cover. Off topic a bit but I listened to a Triumvirat (German band) record the other day ‘Illusions On a Double Dimple’ Super cool band. The album is one long cut.
        Pvr’d the Carter doc. Snuck a couple peeks. Looks really good. Costello came into the dressing room after Ron’s 80th birthday gig.

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        1. I had a guitar teacher a while back who worshiped Jeff Beck and did his best to look like him, shag haircut and all. I think I might once have tried to be David Cassidy.
          Recorded Carter, haven’t watched yet.
          Digression- Have you seen ‘The Last Movie Stars’ on HBO Max about Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman? Good stuff, lots about them, that Golden Age of cinema and about acting.

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        2. I had the Beck look for a while also.
          Havent seen the HBO doc. Im interested in it. Funny you mention that. We watched an old Newman flick last week ‘Harper’. Dated as hell but still enjoyed it.

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  6. This song and Neil Diamonds Coming to America where pretty much influenced how I thought of America until I got here. I like the Bowie but it’s Bowie and I remember the confusion the first time I heard the Yes version. Oh and America by the Nice that was in the mix too. Somewhere amongst all that it may be an accurate reflection of the country

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