I could listen to this song on a tape loop for eons and eons and be happy. Paul Simon is on a different level than other songwriters. This song peaked at #95 in the Billboard 100 and #25 in the UK in 1972. The song was originally on the album Bookends released in 1968 but this record was released as single in 1972 to promote their Greatest Hits.
The first Simon and Garfunkel album I bought was the Greatest Hits in the 80s. None of the songs ever get old to me.
In this song, Paul Simon and his longtime girlfriend Kathy Chitty (from “Kathy’s Song”) are coming to America (moving from England). Paul is deeply confused and unsatisfied, but he doesn’t know why. He just knows that something is missing. It is also about the “American Dream” – the guarantee that you will make it if you stumble upon this country. That is why they are coming to America.
The song is a great example of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel singing in unison, which was a hallmark of their sound. Garfunkel is especially fond of the section where they sing, “And walked off to look for America.” To told Paul Zollo in 1993: “That has a real upright, earnest quality because we both have the identical soul at that moment. We come from the identical place in our attitude, and the spine that’s holding us up, we are the same person. Same college kid, striking out.”
There are no rhymes in this song, which is quite a feat of songwriting. In his Songfacts interview, Gerry Beckley of America (no relation) broke it down: “The entire song is prose. There’s not one line that rhymes and I will tell some of the best songwriters you’ve ever met that particular element and you can see them stop and go through it in their head. We’re oblivious to that being an ingredient because we’re so involved in the story. You’re not sitting there going, ‘That didn’t rhyme, wait a second.’ It’s not an issue.”
The prolific session drummer Hal Blaine played on this, and considers it one of his favorites. Blaine also played on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.”
Other musicians on the track include Joe Osborn on bass and Larry Knechtel on organ.
At their live show in Central Park, Simon & Garfunkel repeated the line “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike” because the home crowd could relate to the image of massive traffic on New Jersey highways.
This was used by James Leo Herlihy in his all-but-forgotten classic novel, The Season of the Witch. The story begins with a pair of teenage runaways traveling by bus to New York, riffing off the lyrics all the way. When they actually see the moon rising over an open field, they feel their journey was meant to happen.
In the movie Almost Famous, the teenaged character Anita (Zooey Deschanel) plays this song to explain why she is leaving home to explore the country. The song is included on the soundtrack to the film.
The progressive rock band Yes recorded a vastly different version which they released as a single in 1972. Their rendition, with layered vocals and musical breakdowns, made #46 in the US. The single version ran 4:06, but a full 10:28 version was also released on a sampler album called The New Age of Atlantic later that year, and included on their 1996 Keys To Ascension album.
In our interview with Yes bass player Chris Squire, he explained: “When Yes first formed, Simon & Garfunkel were very prevalent hit makers at the time and both myself and Jon Anderson were big fans of them. That’s why we covered the song ‘America.’ But we did it differently than their way. We wanted to expand things, which is basically what we did. When Pop tunes were expected to be three minutes long, our mantra was, ‘Let’s make them 10 minutes long.’ So that was really what we did.”
Paul Simon gave Bernie Sanders permission to use this song in a campaign ad when Sanders was campaigning for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Simon told Billboard magazine: “Look, here’s a guy, he comes from Brooklyn, he’s my age. He voted against the Iraq War. He’s totally against Citizens United, thinks it should be overturned. He thinks climate change is an imminent threat and should be dealt with. And I felt: Hats off to you! You can use my song.”
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 we walked off to look for America
Cathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve gone 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 bowtie 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
Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
And 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