American Tune

Happy Fourth of July weekend for our readers in the U.S. In a recent post, we considered Willie Nelson’s recording of “Graceland” on his album, Across the Borderline (1993). That CD also featured another classic song written by Paul Simon, “American Tune.” The beautiful music in the song, though, was not original to Simon.

The music we know from “American Tune” appears in the chorale from “St. Matthew Passion,” BWV 244, written by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) about the crucifixion of Christ. You may hear “American Tune” in that composition in No. 21 (Chorale – “Acknowledge Me My Keeper”), No. 23 (Chorale – “Near Thee I Would Be Staying,” and No. 53 (Chorale – “Wha’ever may vex or grieve thee”). But Bach did not create the theme.

Bach’s composition reworked “Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret,” composed by Hans Hassler (1564-1612), a German composer who wrote the tune around a century before Bach was born. Hassler’s song was a secular love song known in English as “My Heart is Distracted by a Gentle Maid.” Hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) also borrowed Hassler’s tune in one of his compositions. We might call Hassler the “Father of Recycling.” Through Gerhardt and Bach, Hassler’s love song became a religious hymn (“O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,/ Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown.”). Here’s the Bach version:

Paul Simon took the beautiful music and transformed it with new meaning in “American Tune,” which appeared on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973), released as Simon’s second album after his breakup with Art Garfunkel and as America was tangled in Viet Nam and Watergate. As columnist Anne Hill explained, the song “captures perfectly all the complexity of an idealism that died but still lives; the bitter disappointment and deeper hope which are intertwined in the soul of this country.” The lyrics are vague enough to allow for various interpretations, but the music conveys the melancholy of the song while still maintaining the beauty.

But it’s all right, it’s all right;
You can’t be forever blessed.
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day;
And I’m trying to get some rest;
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel performed Simon’s song, “American Tune,” at their famous free concert in Central Park on September 19, 1981. The performance appears on the CD, Concert in Central Park.

Here is Willie Nelson and Simon performing “American Tune” from Nelson’s CD, Across the Borderline. On the album version, Paul Simon produced the recording and backed up Nelson. Check it out below (YouTube also has a live version of the song performed by Nelson and Simon.)

Eva Cassidy does a beautiful version of the song too. Among others, Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a folk song, “Because All Men Are Brothers,” which was written by Tom Glazer and is based upon the same Bach music. The song’s lyrics include: “My brother’s fears are my fears, yellow, white, or brown; / My brother’s tears are my tears, the whole wide world around.”

Thus, Hassler’s tune written in 1601 has functioned as a song of brotherhood, a love song, a hymn of faith, and an American tune about dreams surviving a time of lost innocence. That’s a pretty good record, and a nice theme for Independence Day.

Photo of flag and barn via woodleywonderworks.

What do you think “American Tune” means? Which version of the music do you prefer? Leave a comment.

  • Graceland: Happy Birthday Willie Nelson!
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  • Song of the Day: Willy DeVille’s Cover of “Across the Borderline”
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  • Willie Nelson Is “Still Not Dead”
  • Peter, Paul & Mary’s Ode to Playing “Right Field”
  • (Some Related Chimesfreedom Posts)

    4 thoughts on “American Tune”

    1. Dear Chimes and friends,
      I found this a particularly rich post and passed it along to friends and family with these remarks:
      Caught the following post in an eclectic music blog that I follow. It occurs to me some 30+ years later, as we are facing a new world order and the very real likelihood of the end of the American dream for coming generations, perhaps a most timely American anthem would be Paul Simon’s American Tune (A version from the Concert in the Park can be enjoyed at the following link – . )

      As I see it, it will take more than God’s blessing America to preserve the grand experiment in personal freedom put in motion by our nation’s founders 235 years ago. The men who submitted the Declaration of Independence to King George III took a huge personal risk by repudiating the government in power. As did all those who then supported the demand for independence from English rule. By putting their demand in writing with their names attached, the signers risked being hanged for treason. Men and women throughout the colonies – some known and most forgotten – risked much and sacrificed more, in some cases their very lives, to support the revolutionary cause. As the document itself proclaims, “For the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of the divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Useful to remember as we commemorate July 4th .

    2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I love that quote from the Declaration of Independence, as it is such a great reminder about how important honor was to those founders. I also love how the Declaration is really a pretty radical document, and that the U.S. was born out of it. I’m not sure, though, America is in decline in comparison to the time of that great declaration. It is useful to remember that despite that great act and high ideals, the signers were like our current politicians in that they were imperfect and they were in a troubled nation. (Among other things, the signers did not include women, and of course, African-Americans and others were excluded too.) Either way, you’re right that “American Tune” is a perfect song for capturing our own imperfect and troubled times, just like the travelers who came “in the age’s most uncertain hour.”

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