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.
(Some Related Chimesfreedom Posts)