Listen to this track by sixties folk-rock proponents Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel; Simon & Garfunkel as they are logically known. It’s “America”, one of the greatest songs about identity, soul-searching, and the American mythos ever written, initially appearing on the duo’s 1968 album Bookends.
The song would appear in many forms over the decades and in various places in pop culture, usually to frame the themes of restlessness, youthful angst, and coming-of-age rites of passage and loss of innocence. Today, the day before the Presidential election of 2012, these themes are as pertinent as they were in 1968, which was also an election year.
The song is a fictional account of a bus trip from Michigan to New York City, with one of the travelers named Kathy, the same name as Paul Simon’s then-girlfriend’s. This caused many to think that this was an autobiographical song. But, it wasn’t.
Even if it was, the song isn’t really about just the two main characters in the tale in any case. It’s much bigger than that, reaching a Joseph Campbell-sized portent over the years as the song sank into the public consciousness about what America, as an idea, really is.So, what is actually being said here about America, and how might it still apply?
This is a whole novel inside one song, a set piece containing multiple emotional landscapes, private jokes, and simple pleasures that reveal the characters within. But, one of the things a listener can take away from this is the social context of the song, which is in turn all-encompassing, and ultimately timeless too.
Paul Simon wrote this song a number of years before Simon & Garfunkel recorded it for Bookends. He was living in England at the time, and farmed it out to a British group, Clouds, who did the first recorded version of it. Perhaps it was because Simon was out of his national context that he was able to capture the spirit of a changing American social landscape in such a well-observed and poignant way. But, the song’s release by Simon & Garfunkel three years later corresponded with a very dark period in American history, giving it even more cultural resonance that would last well into this century.
By the time this song reached the ears of the American mainstream, a lot of people were beginning to see the holes in the myths presented to them during an economic boom period after World War II. History had shifted after the war, and the 20th century became an American one where the global balance of power and cultural influence was concerned.This was a time when it was very easy to think of America as a land of endless prosperity for everyone, complete with a divine calling as the rightful defenders of justice all over the world.
But, disillusionment in the mainstream began to set in by the mid-to-late 1960s, even if those on the fringes had always felt it. It was a time of escalating war, assassinations, riots, swings to the political right, and chasm-like generation gaps. This was the era of questioned values, and the waning of a certain kind of American idealism too. Some dug their heels in when the holes in this vision began to become apparent. Others began to wander from it, in search of a new American ideal.
That’s really the undercurrent to this song, a tale of young people who are losing their grip on innocence during a trip across their country. This is the beginning of the heroic journey, this time on a Greyhound bus, with the story’s ending being open-ended. We don’t know what happens to the narrator, or to Kathy. We don’t know if their sense of humour and their love of simple pleasures are going to be enough to make them feel less lost, and help them gain a freedom to live the way they want to live. By the end of this song, their story is subsumed by the greater story of which they’re apart – the fate of a nation, and the state of its soul.
But, that’s another reason why this song is so poignant, and so sensitively and intelligently nuanced. This is not a song of condemnation, or even of disappointment. And yet it still manages to reveal the need to leave home, and to search for something better, something real. It is hopeful, and yet at the same time it is full of trepidation too.
I think this is why the song has endured the way it has; people still feel this way about America. Its story is still in flux today, still feeling the ripples from that turbulent period, with many new ripples since.
America is easy to love. Jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, baseball, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Vonnegut, John Ford, Ursula K. LeGuin, William Carlos Williams, Harper Lee; this is what America has brought the world, among many other things we treasure. But, America makes us worry, too. We worry in the same way we worry about a talented, ambitious friend who is traversing a rocky path. We know that going down that path was a bad idea to begin with, brought about perhaps by greed, hubris, or any given form of human weakness to which we are all subject.
But we still hope they don’t trip up. It’s this same balance that gets us all reading the headlines about political issues in the U.S, and about how those issues affect everyone, American or not. We care about what happens, because we’re invested in that story to one degree or another.
And come election time, I think its important to remember this. That a big part of figuring out what the leadership of that nation should be is deciding which version of that story should be defined and pursued. For instance, should the story of America be about a nation where wealth equals social worth and privilege, and poverty equals societal refuse and condemnation? Or, should that narrative be determined by a quality of leadership that makes use of America’s primary power, which has always been the ability to write compelling stories for itself to help guide actions that are characterized by inclusion, compassion, empathy, intelligence, and vision?
As our 21st century gets older, perhaps its this latter route that will best help to eradicate those feelings of being lost while on the road to recovery, and discovery. The search for America continues even now, although only history will tell the tale in full.
The U.S Presidential election day is tomorrow, November 6, 2012. To all of those who are eligible, please vote.