“America”/ “American Tune”

Today, a double dose of Paul Simon. “America,” from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 album Bookends, represents a big step forward in Simon’s writing. When you listen to his earlier songs–“The Sounds of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” and so on–they can seem a little strident, or precious, or both. “America,” by contrast, is subtle and grown-up. The melody builds nicely from the chamber feel of the opening to a characteristically anthemic chorus. But its the lyrics that really stand out.  They’re a short story in song, complete with action, dialogue, and attribution.

“Kathy,” I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now…”

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, “Be careful, his bow tie is really a camera”

“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat”
“We smoked the last one an hour ago”
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field.

“The moon rose over an open field.” The song pivots in that lovely and precise image. Just like the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” (which rhymes “the way you hold your knife” with “the way you changed my life”), it beautifully moves from the mundane to an emotional  knockout punch: “’Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, thought I knew she was sleeping./I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”

Here’s a great version by the Swedish folk group First Aid Kit, performed recently on one of David Letterman’s last shows before his retirement. (Letterman introduces it by saying it was one of the songs he used to sing to his son when he was a wee lad.)

“American Tune” comes from Simon’s second solo album, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Based on a melody by Bach, it’s a solemn and indelibly affecting song that (improbably) blends the struggles and triumphs of one man with those of a nation. Rather than one of many wonderful cover versions, here’s Simon himself singing it at the induction ceremony of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2011. The song holds up.

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