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Paul Simon: American Tune

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Ian Malin

Churches and cathedrals will remain silent this Easter so there will be little chance to hear O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, a choral work by Johann Sebastian Bach, based on a Latin text written during the Middle Ages. The poem was translated into German by a Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt in the 17th century and later into English by an Anglican vicar in Oxfordshire John Gambold a century later.

Bach arranged the melody and used five stanzas in his St Matthew Passion. That melody, lilting and mournful, is a familiar one and, now that choirs have fallen silent and we are all reduced to solo or duet roles, it may be time to listen again to a 20th century song that was a meditation on American society in the early Seventies and has taken on a new lease of life in these desperate times.

American Tune is the sixth song on Paul Simon’s 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Simon’s third solo effort has plenty of upbeat moments such as Take Me To The Mardi Gras and Kodachrome, with its memorable biting opening line 'When I think of all the crap I learned at high school', but it has a dark side and American Tune, written as the Watergate scandal raged and the body bags were still coming home from Vietnam, is a masterpiece and one of Simon’s greatest. It asks the question we are all asking now: why have things gone so wrong?

'I first heard the melody around 1968. In fact it was Art Garfunkel who first showed it to me,' says Simon. 'We were going to do a Christmas album and we didn’t want to do the standard repertoire, Silent Night and those things. The album never came to pass but the melody just stayed in my head from 1968. I was going to incorporate it into Bridge Over Troubled Water as there is a similar harmonic structure between the two.'

The idea that American Tune could once more be an anthem for a troubled nation was raised last year in an article in the Los Angeles Times by Jeffrey Fleishman who noted that there are parallels with a time when Richard Nixon was plotting in the White House with the present when another morally bankrupt fool there has taken his country down a dangerous path.When I think of the road we’re travelling on I wonder what's gone wrong.

'Much of the power of American Tune is in Simon’s voice,' says Fleishman. 'It does not ring with the loud anger that runs through our time. It is mournful, as if unspooling in the candlelight of a day’s end, in the place where a man’s battles gives pause until dawn.' That will resonate in these times when it is difficult to sleep and night has become a time of meditation.

Paul Simon has sensed that his meditation on a lost America can be a meditation for a lost world. Like all of us he is doing his bit to help out, in his case reworking his emotional song to a background of chirping birds to raise our spirits, ending with a touching little message to 'stay safe everyone, stay well'.

Simon writes his song in four verses, the first voicing what most of us feel about those who have led us to this mess.

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken

And many times confused

Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken

And certainly misused

From the almost biblical imagery, the second verse contains the prophetic line 'We’ve lived so well so long' before the third verse takes a more hallucinatory turn where Simon dreams of dying but in those dreams he is flying.

High above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea

And on to the final verse with the four lines that distil the American experience perfectly…

Oh, we come on the ship they call Mayflower

We come on the ship that sailed the moon

We come in the age’s most uncertain hour

And sing an American tune

That one image is wonderful. Four years after Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, a nation is now stepping into danger. It is simple but only a great songwriter with a poet’s imagination could use such a phrase, a ship that sailed the moon.

The shops have closed until further notice and the empty playgrounds are one of many sad symbols of present times but hopefully this grim pandemic will eventually produce some great art and great songs. And in the meantime American Tune, a political song that is more than just political, is a comfort blanket in uncomfortable times. A bridge over troubled water.


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Jul 30, 2022

This is indeed a wonderful song and has served a beautiful purpose now for 50 years. Yet even in its most wonderful image it reveals how difficult it is, how impossible, for the liberal dream of American exceptionalism to cope with the facts: the Mayflower, Apollo XI, immigrant ships well represented by the Statue of Liberty and the ironic title, all correct, present and true ... but no slave ships. Nor is it possible to imagine the inclusion of slave ships without the whole song taking on an entirely different complexion. And then there are the original inhabitants...

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