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In Search Of America: A Tribute To The Songwriting Genius of Paul Simon

Updated on March 3, 2016

Paul Simon

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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

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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

A field in Kansas.
A field in Kansas. | Source
The Statue of Liberty in New York City.
The Statue of Liberty in New York City. | Source

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.

Never underestimate the signficance of someone offering you comfort.
Never underestimate the signficance of someone offering you comfort. | Source

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.

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    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 2 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I still play my Simon & Garfunkle album of greatest hits and enjoy listening just as much as I did ages ago. I love "Bridge Over Troubled Water", which was my very favorite song for years and years. I enjoyed your hub and how you related song lyrics to your own experiences and insights. Music and lyrics affect us in profound ways.

      Voted Up+++

      Jaye

    • Julie K Henderson profile image
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      Julie K Henderson 2 years ago

      Thank you for your kind comments. I am glad you also have enjoyed "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and other songs on Simon and Garfunkel's greatest hits.

    • Diana Abrahamson profile image

      Diana Abrahamson 2 years ago from t Francis Bay

      Love these hits. "Mrs Robinson" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" will never date!

    • Julie K Henderson profile image
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      Julie K Henderson 2 years ago

      I agree. Thank you for commenting.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      Nancy Mitchell 2 years ago from Bend, OR

      Thanks for reminding me of Paul Simon's brilliance. I need to pull out a S&G cd and start listening. Their music in The Graduate really added to that film and makes me watch it even today. I like Paul Simon because I can understand every word he sings, and I appreciate the lyrics. I enjoy other singer's music, but it frustrates me when I can't understand what they're singing. I loved watching the videos!

    • Julie K Henderson profile image
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      Julie K Henderson 2 years ago

      You are welcome. I appreciate how accessible his lyrics are. I am glad you enjoyed the videos. Josh Groban's cover of "America" is a song I've listened to over and over and over.

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 2 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      Paul Simon majored in English at Queens College, which might account for the brilliance of his lyrics. I, too, have been a fan of his since early adolescence; I remember rushing to buy The Rhythm of the Saints when it came out in 1990, when I was 15.

      As a side note, I thought for years that in the line from "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," "Papa said, 'Oy,/Forget that boy,/I'm gonna stick him in the house of detention,'" he was saying "F--k it," not "forget."

    • Julie K Henderson profile image
      Author

      Julie K Henderson 2 years ago

      Thank you for commenting. I have misunderstood song lyrics in the past as well, though I don't believe "Me And Julio Down by the Schoolyard" gave me pause.

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 2 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      "Hold me closer, Tony Danza ..."

    • Julie K Henderson profile image
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      Julie K Henderson 2 years ago

      Classic. How about "Can't Find The Butter Ma'am..."?

    • EsJam profile image

      Essie 2 years ago from Southern California

      When I saw the title of your article, I clicked. I just had to! If ever two voices were meant to sing together, it would be these two. I remember, years ago, taking a lone trip to Lake Tahoe, Ca, and popping in the greatest hits cd. It was comforting, so comforting, I listened over and over.

      "Cecilia" - reminds me of an ice-skating routine I had seen on tv.

      Funny how certain songs bring back the most obscure memories.

      I'm glad I found your Hub. Very nice! Voted up!

      I'm also big Sarah Brightman and Eva Cassidy fans. Nice song videos.

    • Julie K Henderson profile image
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      Julie K Henderson 2 years ago

      Thank you for your kind comment. Simon and Garfunkel sounded miraculous together; I agree completely. I love how powerful music is because it can conjure up such otherwise obscure memories.

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 22 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Interesting Hub, Julie. Paul Simon is one of my favourite composers – he has that incredible knack of being able to conjure up amazing lyrics to go with his melodies. Incidentally, Scarborough Fair is about the Yorkshire town of Scarborough – nothing to do with New York State! There’s also an older Scottish song (The Elfin King) that has similar lyrics and may have been the inspiration for the one most of us are familiar with. Great stuff, voted up.

    • Julie K Henderson profile image
      Author

      Julie K Henderson 22 months ago

      FatBoyThin: Thank you for commenting. I didn't know that Scarborough Fair is about a Yorkshire town; thank you for this information.

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 20 months ago

      Big Paul Simon Fan. This provided a lot of good information. Enjoyed it.

    • Julie K Henderson profile image
      Author

      Julie K Henderson 20 months ago

      I'm delighted. Thank you for commenting.

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