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In Search Of America: A Tribute To The Songwriting Genius of Paul Simon
Several years ago at a family gathering I surprised my uncle Lee by identifying Simon & Garfunkel’s song “America” after someone mentioned the line, “His bowtie is really a camera.” My familiarity with these lyrics began years earlier when Simon & Garfunkel’s “Greatest Hits” CD was one of my favorites. Even though this CD has now fallen out of heavy rotation, I recognize why I was so taken with this collection of songs. These songs contain stories and poetry, and this is what attracted me and held me in their grip for years. Surely I am not the only one who has experienced this; for this reason, I wanted to write about the amazing songwriting abilities of Paul Simon.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel
Before I dive into this particular subject, however, I must confess that I don’t always seek stories in the songs I enjoy. There are times when I crave clever word play, and I am therefore more likely to listen to Jason Mraz. In addition, I occasionally appreciate less profound songs such as “Y.M.C.A” by The Village People. I realize Paul Simon isn’t the only songwriter who builds songs with obvious narrative. Billy Joel, who I retain great fondness for, has achieved this with songs such as “And So It Goes” and, of course, his megahit “The Piano Man.”
"America" live in Central Park in New York City
Sights you may find while looking for America
It could be argued both Billy Joel and Paul Simon have achieved popularity because their songs are accessible. I believe this is one reason I’ve enjoyed Paul Simon’s songs as thoroughly as I have. For instance, the song “America” makes me think of the open road; it reminds me of visiting places in this greatly varied country. During such travels I’ve found “open fields” and realized “Michigan seems like a dream to me now” after I driven hundreds of miles beyond it. I’ve thought about the song lyrics to “America” as I’ve traveled by car across America, and I wondered what it means to look for America. Should I have sought the so-called traditional American offerings such as apple pie, baseball, and the statue of liberty? At times I’ve wondered if I can understand even a fraction of what it means to find America until I’ve eaten fried green tomatoes in Georgia, stood at the place in New York City where the Twin Towers once stood, and driven across the seemingly nothingness of western Nebraska. These events may seem cliché and overrated, and yet I don’t know if I would have chewed on this idea of “looking for America” as intensely without my affection for the song “America” by Paul Simon.
Josh Groban's live cover of "America"
Simon and Garfunkel sing "Homeward Bound"
“America” isn’t the only Paul Simon song which has prompted introspection. The song “Homeward Bound” has made me wonder if we must leave our homes in order to miss them enough to finally appreciate them once we return. During moments of homesickness while traveling I’ve found comfort in the lyrics, “each town looks the same to me / The movies and the factories / And every stranger’s face I see / Remind me that I long to be / Homeward bound.” I’ve traveled for numerous reasons, one of which is to understand the relief of being “homeward bound” after a long sojourn away from what is most familiar and beloved.
The song “A Hazy Shade of Winter” has appealed to me because, as someone raised in the upper Midwest, I know from experience how muted the colors of winter are. These lines from this song seem firmly tattooed in my memory: “Seasons change with the scenery / Weaving time in a tapestry / Won’t you stop and remember me.” This song, unlike most of their songs, I become more familiar with because The Bangles did a cover of it in 1987. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate covers of Paul Simon’s songs almost as much as the originals. This has been especially true of Josh Groban’s performance of “America” and of Eva Cassidy’s version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Eva Cassidy performs "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
The lyrics from “Bridge Over Troubled Water” speak volumes to me, and often they remind me of the magnanimous friends who have figuratively provided me with the kind of support implied in these words: “When you’re weary, feeling small, / When tears are in your eyes / I will dry them all / I’m on your side / When times get rough / And friends just can’t be found / Like a bridge over troubled water / I will lay me down.” Akin to R.E.M.’s 1993 single “Everybody Hurts,” this song reminds me of the inevitability of pain and the possibility of comfort in this life. Since I consider one of the major benefits of music how it can help people feel less alone, what Paul Simon accomplishes with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is no small feat.
Part of Paul Simon’s brilliance is his ability to write lighthearted songs as well as more serious ones. The song “Cecilia” is a great example. His use of the word “jubilation” in this song fits perfectly with its catchy tempo. Similarly, “Me And Julio Down By The School Yard” exudes whimsicality in the lines, “Well, I’m on my way / I don’t know where I’m going.”
In case you want to learn the words to "Cecilia"...
Yet I wonder if my original attraction to Paul Simon’s songwriting was his more melancholy songs. For instance, I have listened to “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” dozens of times over the years. As a result, the first verse of this song is easy to remember: “Are you going to Scarborough Fair / Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme / Remember me to one who lives there / She once was a true love of mine.” This isn’t a song like “Mrs. Robinson” which is more energetic and easily accessible. Instead, these lyrics concern loss and remembrance; in other words, they touch on difficult and essential parts of a person’s life. I don’t know where Scarborough Fair is—though I suspect it is in New York State—but this minor ignorance doesn’t detract from my appreciation and enjoyment of this song.
Celtic Women's cover of "Scarborough Fair"
Many years ago I could relate more easily to these lyrics from “I Am A Rock”: “I’ve built walls / A fortress, steep and mighty / That none may penetrate / I have no need of friendship / Friendship causes pain. / It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. / I am a rock / I am an island.” Thankfully, I’ve learned—and am still learning—how much I need other people, and for this reason this song no longer resonates with me as much. Nonetheless, I still appreciate the beautiful language Paul Simon used in order to write this song. Perhaps this is one reason I’ve never stopped listening to his songs: They remind me of the beautiful, broken, and complicated aspects of being human. By offering me stories which I can sometimes stitch myself into, he has provided me with the gift of belonging to a larger tapestry beyond my singular existence.