It took me four days
to hitch-hike from Saginaw
I've come to look for America
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Downtown Saginaw along the Saginaw River
With a title like "America," I could literally write about anywhere I wanted. In fact, I even considered writing about the United States as a whole, or even the continent. However, since Paul Simon specifically mentioned Saginaw, Michigan, in his lyrics, I figured I’d take the easy way out and just write about that.
The state of Michigan has often been found lurking in the comical subtext of popular culture, most likely due to the unique Native American names that became cities – Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Cheboygan, and even Paw Paw. That may be the only reason Simon chose to include the location in the lyrics for "America." Not much can be said about Michigan, except that like its other Midwestern counterparts (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), the residents are the salt of the earth. The best people you could ever hope to meet (having studied at a university in the Midwest, it holds a special place in my heart).
Saginaw, like many other Michigan cities, was built upon industrial manufacturing. The city thrived as a lumber town in the 19th century, but – and again, like many other Michigan cities – has experienced a rapid decline over the past 50 years. Increases in the Great Lake State’s unemployment have led to a rise in crime and a drop in population. Currently, the entire region is leading the global shift toward clean energy alternatives. However, it remains unclear as to why the semi-autobiographical narrator in Simon’s tune was in Michigan to begin with.
The lyrics follow the narrator as he’s traveling across the United States on his way to make it big in New York City. Perhaps, this is a partnered song to "The Boxer," which tells the story of a struggling musician starving in the big, bad city. "America" could very well be the prequel as we meet the singer before he’s arrived. He may or may not be traveling with his lover, depending on which S&G fan you ask. Some believe the lyrics are written as a letter to a lover miles away. Paul Simon’s real life girlfriend, Kathy Chitty (mentioned in multiple songs including "Kathy’s Song" and "Homeward Bound"), lived in England during some of his career and it’s very likely he’s writing to her.
The more popularly accepted interpretation, however, is that it’s Kathy who’s with him on the bus. I for one agree with this interpretation and there are a few lyrical details to support that opinion:
“Kathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh.”
“Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces. She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.”
“So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine.”
“’Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping.”
"America" tells the story of two lovers on a cross country bus, looking for a better life, maybe even looking for the lost American Dream. At its heart, this is a protest song about the longing for a better way of life that seems to have vanished from our society, even back as far as 1972 when the tune was first released. The melodic climax appears when Simon is "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike" – an obvious metaphor regaling all of us as lost souls wandering the highways (and clogged Garden State thoroughfares).
Further exploration of this metaphor can be found in the mere fact that the narrator is leaving the simple, small-town life of the Midwest for a career in the entertainment industry in a city that is arguably the center of the universe, akin to Rome during the Roman Empire. The entire song could very well be an allegory about a fall from grace into the temptation of the sin of fame, fortune, and sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
"America" has been called one of Simon’s best compositions and a 2014 Rolling Stone
magazine reader’s poll placed it in the group’s top five best songs. As far as the metaphoric value or where it ranks… I’ll leave that for your own colorful interpretation.
~ Justin Novelli
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