The Real Town In America That Inspired Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’
via Simon & Garfunkel / Youtube
The song “America” appeared on Simon and Garfunkel‘s album Bookends in 1968. It narrates the journey of a couple who are hitchhiking in search of the essence of America.
Drawing inspiration from a real trip taken by Paul Simon and his girlfriend Kathy Chitty, “America” chronicles their travels from Pittsburgh to New Jersey, with a brief mention of Saginaw, a small city in Michigan.
Serving as a portrayal of the American dream, the song showcases Simon and Garfunkel’s signature harmonies, gentle folk guitar, and an unconventional lyrical style. The track takes the form of a story, devoid of rhymes, with only the recurring refrain of “looking for America.”
Throughout the song, Simon and Kathy’s initial optimism as they embark on their journey, “marrying their fortunes together,” gradually transforms into feelings of being “lost,” “empty,” and “aching.”
The Encounter With Saginaw
The track on Bookends, Simon and Garfunkel’s fourth album, drew inspiration from Saginaw. Along with their subsequent release of Bridge over Troubled Water only two years later, the album is commonly regarded as their finest work. The song Mrs. Robinson became a chart-topping hit for the duo, and the album achieved both commercial success and positive reviews from critics.
Bob Dyer, a DJ and promoter from Saginaw, remembers the period when Simon stayed in the city and composed the song “America.” In 1966, Dyer arranged a performance for Simon and Garfunkel in Saginaw as part of the Y-A-Go-Go concert series. Reflecting on this in 2004, he shared with The Saginaw News:
“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.”
Dyer inquired Simon about why he hadn’t withdrawn from the show, to which Simon responded, “had to see what a city named Saginaw looked like.” Dyer further added:
“Apparently, he liked it; he wrote ‘America’ while he was here, including that line about taking four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.”
A Song’s Lasting Impact
The significance of the song endures even after fifty years, especially for the inhabitants of the city. In 2010, a painter embarked on a project of depicting the lyrics of “America” across various locations in the city. In an interview with M Live, he expressed:
“To me and many fellow Saginaw natives, it represents our longing for home.”
He goes on to say:
“When I was in school and really missing Saginaw, I would keep playing that song over and over again, and would be thinking about how I left Saginaw to find my dreams, too, and wondered if that was really the right decision.”
However, the significance of the song extends beyond Saginaw as well. It was prominently included in the popular 2000 coming-of-age film Almost Famous.
“America” has acquired political significance and became a part of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Simon discussed its usage with Billboard, stating:
“Look, here’s a guy, he comes from Brooklyn, he’s my age. He voted against the Iraq War. He’s totally against Citizens United, thinks it should be overturned. He thinks climate change is an imminent threat and should be dealt with. And I felt: Hats off to you! You can use my song.”