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.

Simon & Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence” and Mrs Robinson

Writing yesterday about the wonderful song I Only Have Eyes For You, got me thinking about Art Garfunkel who also had a big hit with that song in the 1970s. His most successful period however was the 1960s, when he and high school friend Paul Simon formed a duo. They first started recording music as teenagers but got back together in their early twenties to record their first album which featured a simple, pared-down, folk version of The Sound of Silence. Sadly the album was not a great success and the pair went their separate ways. Fortunately for us however, the song’s producer revisited it in the wake of increased airplay, remixed it and transformed it into the kind of folk rock record that was being produced by the Byrds and Bob Dylan at the time. By 1966 The Sound of Silence had become an international hit and needless to say Art Garfunkel headed back from college, and Paul Simon from working in England, in order to capitalise on the renewed interest in their music.

The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel:

I don’t think I really would have remembered them from that era as I was too young but in 1967 the film The Graduate was released and rather than use a specially written soundtrack, the director chose to use Simon & Garfunkel songs such as “The Sound of Silence”,” Mrs Robinson” and “Scarborough Fair”. The film was a massive success and unlike other film songs I have written about, these are carefully woven into the storyline to great effect, adding another dimension to an already compelling screenplay. Benjamin Braddock has returned home to Pasadena, California after graduating from college. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life, he spends his days lounging in the swimming pool of his parents’ very luxurious home. Enter Mrs Robinson, the wife of one of his father’s colleagues who is similarly bored and and disillusioned with life. Of course the inevitable happens and the affair she draws the inexperienced and clumsy Benjamin into, leads to moments of great two-handed dialogue.

Benjamin: For god’s sake, Mrs. Robinson. Here we are. You got me into your house. You give me a drink. You… put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won’t be home for hours.
Mrs. Robinson: So?
Benjamin: Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.
Mrs. Robinson: [laughs] Huh?
Benjamin: Aren’t you?

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I really only appreciated the music of Simon & Garfunkel properly after watching the film in the ’70s when it first appeared on television. (Was I too young for it I now wonder? – Doubt it as adult themes but never anything too disturbing.) I don’t think any other film made such good use of its soundtrack, until Saturday Night Fever came along in 1978 featuring the music of The Bee Gees.

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So, “What’s It All About” – Yet again I am writing about music from film or television. The soundtrack to my life has most definitely been heavily influenced by what I used to watch on screen. As a teenager I had a Saturday job in our village newsagents. In my lunch hour I used to go to our local electrical retailer (otherwise known as “The TV Shop”) which had a small rack of vinyl albums up near the back. Nothing there had been anywhere near a chart but there were lots of Greatest Hits (Simon & Garfunkel), Easy Listening (Burt Bacharach) and Film Soundtrack albums (The Graduate, West Side Story etc). All my welfare needs were already catered for by my parents, so the Saturday job wages were used to buy vinyl from this shop. Walking back to the newsagents one Saturday ahead of the afternoon shift with a carrier bag obviously containing an album (they were a very distinctive shape), I bumped into a friend. She immediately asked what I had just bought – “G-Gary Glitter” I quickly replied, embarrassed to admit it was actually a Glenn Miller album as I’d fallen in love with his music watching The Glenn Miller Story with my dad the previous Sunday. Funny how the passage of time has rendered that answer wrong on so many levels – I am proud however to say that I was never, ever again embarrassed to admit that I loved Mr Miller and his unique “sound”!

The Sound of Silence Lyrics
(Song by Paul Simon)

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone,
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp,
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.

“Fools,” said I, “You do not know.
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you.
Take my arms that I might reach you.”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming.
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence.”

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Postscript:

I feel I can’t finish today’s post without mentioning the sad passing of Sir Terry Wogan – I can’t remember a time when he hasn’t been around on television and radio bringing joy to so many people. It’s akin to losing a favourite uncle (or great-uncle depending on your age). It is appropriate to note on this day therefore, that the guest who caused him most difficulty during his long run of early evening chat shows, was indeed “Mrs Robinson” herself, Anne Bancroft – She apparently sat in a catatonic trance and refused to answer any of his questions.

RIP Sir Terry.