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Sun December 19, 2010
Music Interviews

Finding Simon & Garfunkel's 'America' In Saginaw, Mich.

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:38 am

In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel released the bittersweet song "America" -- a tune about a man leaving Saginaw, Mich., to seek his fortunes elsewhere. This past week, a reporter at The Saginaw News noticed lyrics from that song spray-painted on vacant buildings all over town.

Some of the paint on the walls of these abandoned factories is the work of Eric Schantz, a mural painter from the area. He told NPR that the paint is an attempt to disguise the fact that his city is boarded up.

"A few years ago, me and my friends, being artists and painters, we decided to go around the city and start painting the boarded-up buildings and storefronts," Schantz says. "That ended up building into kind of an underground, grass-roots group called Paint Saginaw."

Schantz says that he is disheartened by the state of Saginaw, a city that fell apart after General Motors closed its factories in the area.

"In a blighted city like Saginaw, it's kind of depressing when you drive through and all you see is boarded-up buildings and plywood everywhere," Schantz says. So the group decided that they would put Paul Simon's lyrics onto the plywood.

" 'America' has become a homesick song for Saginawians," Schantz says. "The city was once vastly populated, a couple hundred thousand -- and now it's below 50,000. People left to go find their America, to pursue their American dream.  And when they left, they never really came back, 'cause there wasn't really much to come back to. And the emphasis on 'hitchhiking' to get out of here is kinda like people saying that they'll do just about anything to leave."

Schantz did leave Saginaw, when he went to college in Kansas City. He returned, however, missing the town that he grew up in, and looking to help.

"I used to sit in my dorm room at least once a week and play 'America' by Simon and Garfunkel, just because that line, 'Leaving Saginaw to go look for America,' I was just, like, 'Well, this is what I'm doing.' I wasn't planning on coming back, and fate landed me back here. And I figured that, 'Well, I'm here for a reason, and I'll find my purpose.' And I think that's become making public art."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

In 1968, Simon & Garfunkel recorded the bittersweet song "America." It's about a man who leaves Saginaw, Michigan to find the true meaning of America. Rumor has it, Paul Simon wrote that song in Saginaw.

Well, this past week, a reporter at The Saginaw News noticed lyrics from that song artfully spray-painted on abandoned buildings all over town.

And it didn't seem random, but more like a guerilla-type art project. And so after some digging, we managed to track down one of the people behind it, and here's the story.

Mr. ERIC SCHANTZ (Mural Painter): I think if Paul Simon came back to Saginaw, he would - he'd just be shocked. I mean, it once was an incredibly, you know, thriving, booming, bustling city. I think that after the census comes in, I don't know if we'll even be classified as a city anymore. It's gotten pretty small.

My name is Eric Schantz. I am a mural painter in Saginaw, Michigan. We have a city that has basically been abandoned after the post-industrial decline. General Motors closed their factories and left and kind of left our city to decay.

A few years ago, me and my friends, we decided to go around the city and start painting the boarded-up buildings and storefronts.

(Soundbite of song, "America")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL (Musical Duo): (Singing) It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw. I've gone to look for America.

Mr. SCHANTZ: "America" has become a homesick song for Saginawians. The city once was vastly populated, a couple hundred thousand. And now, it's below 50,000. People left to go find their America, to pursue their American dream. And when they left, they never really came back.

(Soundbite of song, "America")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat.

Mr. SCHANTZ: I graduated and went off to college, pretty convinced that Saginaw had nothing to offer me as an artist, went to Kansas City, made some good money. But when I was in school, I really did miss my town. As much as I didn't really like it at the time, it's still home. It's still your hometown.

(Soundbite of song, "America")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) And the moon rose over an open field.

Mr. SCHANTZ: I used to sit in my dorm room at least once a week and play "America" just because that line: leaving Saginaw to go look for America, I was just, like, well, this is what I'm doing.

I wasn't planning on coming back, and fate landed me back here. And I figured that, well, I'm here for a reason, and I'll find my purpose. And I think that's become making public art.

I really want to inspire people to start taking ownership in the city's problems because the city really can't afford to fix them.

(Soundbite of song, "America")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike, they've all gone to look for America.

Mr. SCHANTZ: It's not going to come back. It's not going to be the Saginaw it was. It will be a new Saginaw. It's not going to be the big industrial Mecca that it was. It's not going to have a quarter of a million people living here. It's just going to be a really nice, small town. I just really think that we can, as citizens, make this into the town that we want it to be.

(Soundbite of song, "America")

RAZ: That's the voice of Eric Schantz. He's a member of Paint Saginaw, a public art collective in Saginaw, Michigan. You can see a few photographs of their "America" project at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.