An American Odyssey in Song, The Route Map and Simon & Garfunkel

Well, so far I’ve not been able to commit to the discipline of a series within the pages  this blog but a bit of synchronicity has come about which has made me rethink. Last week over at Yeah, Another Blogger, Neil wrote about how he was going to get back into the discipline of reading books and I commented that in 2015, the year before I took up blogging, I had set myself the task of reading my way around the 50 US states. The state always had to be the main character, and it was great. First I read my way round the Southern States (e.g. Fried Green Tomatoes…. , Gone With The Wind, The Orchard Keeper) then for a change of scenery, I headed up to the Great Lakes and started to read my way round the states up there (e.g. Shotgun Lovesongs set in Wisconsin). I had a route map and everything but sadly when I discovered blogging at the start of 2016, due to time constraints, the journey ended.

img051The wonderful post written by Rol last week over at My Top Ten about the song Wichita Lineman reminded me that when I myself wrote about that song (along with Galveston and By The Time I Get To Phoenix), I had mentioned that my plan was to do a series at some point, journeying round the 50 states in song, and here we are at last – My reading journey may have come to an end but my “50 State American Odyssey in Song” is about to begin!

As a bit of background to this obsession with travelling round the 50 states, whether in book form or in song, I think it’s because it had always been a dream of mine to actually make that journey at some point. I am however starting to think it might never happen. As a kid growing up in rural Scotland, I watched an awful lot of films and telly set in what we called, “America”. On wet Sunday afternoons when there were no outdoor chores to be done, my dad and I used to watch classic MGM Musicals, and Westerns starring John Wayne, set in every corner of that vast land. Also, the music I loved as a kid usually came from Americans such as Elvis, The Monkees (Davy Jones being the exception of course) and The Mamas & the Papas. Oh yes, as soon as I was old enough (maybe about ten), and had saved up enough pocket-money, I was going to buy one of those Greyhound bus tickets and be transported from one real life filmset to the next……

But then I grew up. The childhood dreams dissipated and Europe became my destination of choice (although sadly I’m not sure how welcome we’re going to be after all the “triggering” that’s been going on of late). Despite a few far flung trips over the years, none have been across the Atlantic, and (not wanting to offend any of my American blogging buddies), that 50 State Odyssey is no longer at the top of my real life bucket list. It will therefore have to be of the virtual nature, and in song.

Where to start then? As it turns out this is not going to be as easy as I thought. I wanted to complete the journey only entering and leaving the same state once, but the original route map I put together for my reading challenge started in Florida and ended in Maine – Having racked my brains and even done a fair bit of “Googling”, I can’t find any songs I’m familiar with that mention place names from either of those states. Likewise, when I find artists who were born in either state (e.g. Jim Morrison of The Doors was born in Florida), it turns out they moved around a lot, so can’t really be associated with any one place.

For this first post therefore, where I’m simply setting out the rules, I will just include a song that tells a tale of someone, who unlike my 10-year-old self, did actually take the plunge and bought a Greyhound bus ticket for a trip across America. In my digital music database the most common song title to pop up in different guises is in fact America, but this one by Simon & Garfunkel is my favourite. Although released as a single to promote a Greatest Hits album in 1972 it was written by Paul Simon much earlier, inspired by a 1964 road trip he took with his girlfriend – Perfect for this post, and I wonder, did he indeed “find America” on that trip?

America by Simon & Garfunkel:

So, “What’s It All About?” – I am excited about this challenge and I love researching the back story to the songs that have formed the “tracks of my years” but in this case I may need a little help. I think I’m ok with most of the 50 states but if I’m going to follow my continuous route map without cheating, I’m going to need some input from my blogging buddies. The starting point for the journey could be either Florida or Maine but at this rate, left to my own devices, it’s going to be something by Miami Sound Machine for Florida or something from the musical Carousel for Maine and I really don’t want to go down either of those routes. A song that refers to a place name is the way to go, just as Jimmy Webb used Wichita, Galveston and Phoenix in three of his very best songs – Oh Jimmy, where are you when I need you?

Any suggestions for songs (that I’m likely to be able to write about) associated with Florida or Maine would be gratefully received – You know where the comments boxes are. Once I get started it should be fun, it’s just that first step…….

America Lyrics
(Song by Paul Simon)

Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate
Here in my bag.
So we bought a pack of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner’s pies,
And walked off
To look for America.

“Kathy”, I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
Michigan seems like a dream to me now.
It took me four days

To hitch-hike from Saginaw.
“I’ve come to look for America.”

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.

“Kathy, I’m lost”, I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.”
Counting the cars

On the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come
To look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.

Breaking Bad, America and “A Horse With No Name”

I seem to have been languishing in the late ’70s for some time now, writing about songs that many think of as a bit “naff” (although I don’t) so time to move to a slightly different era perhaps, and to a different style of music.

Most people will have heard the song A Horse With No Name by America at some point in their lives. It was a hit in the UK for them in 1971 but it turns out that they were actually from Ruislip outside London! Would seem a bit bizarre if not for the fact that all three band members had US Airforce Officer fathers who were based over here and that is how they met. There is no escaping the fact that their music is very much in the style of Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, but that was exactly what they intended so worked well for them. I have written before of how kids like myself who came from rural Scotland found this kind of music very exotic and otherworldly. We had no dark desert highways or tequila sunrises, we certainly didn’t have warm winds blowing the stars around and we wouldn’t have dreamt of crossing a desert on a horse with no name – Plenty of cows and sheep where I came from and lots of lush grass, but no, the whole desert imagery was something beyond our ken.

A Horse With No Name by America:

The amusing thing for me about this “desert” song, is that it was actually recorded in the UK, at a studio in Puddletown, Dorset (you couldn’t make it up). It was released here first and it was not until the following year that it was a hit in the US. Yet another group of artists with a hybrid transatlantic upbringing which might have contributed to their success on both sides of the pond (don’t like that term for the massive ocean that is the Atlantic but seems to have become the term used to make us feel closer to each other than is really the case). Rupert Holmes, whom I wrote about last week, was born in Cheshire to an English mother as a result of his US Army Officer father being stationed there. There are many more stories like this and it might be an idea for another post, another day.

desrt

But back to the song – For me, it will always be associated with my school days. In Primary School I always wore my long hair tied back in a ponytail so it was inevitable that the joker of the class would assign me an “equine” nickname. Too embarrassing to spill the beans here but suffice to say it was all done in jest and never caused upset. When we moved up to Secondary School I found myself in the same class for most subjects as the “joker” from my junior school days. The ponytail had long gone but of course the song A Horse With No Name had well and truly become a part of our musical memory bank, so for the next six years I often found myself sitting in class, concentrating on a tricky maths or physics problem, suddenly realising that this song was being quietly hummed in the background for my benefit! Sadly we have now lost touch but I swear that if our middle-aged selves met up today, I would get a big smile, would be greeted with my old nickname and given a few bars of A Horse With No Name. Funny how some things stick.

Like most people on the planet last year, we got hooked on the television series Breaking Bad set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The plot and the acting were all absolutely first class and we binge-watched it over a period of a few weeks. I was constantly amazed how these big cities could have evolved in the middle of the desert but for various strategic and economic reasons they have, and they continue to prosper. Of course whenever the main characters left the city and drove across the desert, most of the audience must have thought of the song A Horse With No Name and it was only a matter of time before it made a cameo appearance on the show. In Season 3, Episode 2, Walter White is singing along to the song on the radio when he is pulled over by the police for having a broken windshield, and that is part of a much bigger storyline that I thoroughly recommend you dip into.

I noticed this week that Elton John has come out saying, that in his opinion, the best year for music was 1971 and this song came along right at the end of that year. Looking back at lists of what was No. 1 in the Singles Chart however never substantiates such claims as that was also the year that gave us “Grandad” by Clive Dunn, “Ernie” by Benny Hill and “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” by Middle of the Road. It is usually the songs that reached the lower reaches of the charts that best stand the test of time. America reached No. 3 with their desert song and Elton himself only reached No. 7 that year with the wonderful “Your Song” written by Bernie Taupin.

So, the young songwriters of today should not be deterred as it seems that we just do not know which of their songs will still be around in the future – It only takes the fortuitous selection of a minor hit from the past, for inclusion in a film soundtrack, television show or advert, to turn them into the biggest selling records of all time. We have seen it happen before and we will see it happen again. In the meantime though I’m off to have a wallow in the music of 1971 – If it’s ok for Elton, it’s ok for me!

A Horse With No Name Lyrics
(Song by Dewey Bunnell)

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …