One of my favorite albums is Willie Nelson’s Across the Borderline, which includes his wonderful version of the title track. Recently, I ran across this gem of Willy DeVille covering the song.
Jim Dickinson, John Hiatt, and Ry Cooder wrote “Across the Borderline.” That’s a pretty good pedigree. And it helps explain why brilliant artists like Nelson and DeVille have covered it.
So, for today, check out “Across the Borderline” by the late Willy DeVille, who passed away in 2009.
Although most people recognize DeVille’s voice from the theme to The Princess Bride (which he co-wrote with Mark Knopfler), he had a long and diverse career as a solo artist and leading the band Mink DeVille.
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.
We celebrate the birthday of Willie Nelson’s, who was born during the final minutes of April 29, 1933 (so that his birthday is sometimes reported as April 30) in Abbott, Texas. One of my favorite Willie Nelson CDs is Across the Borderline, which was produced by Don Was. The CD was released in 1993, during a traumatic period in Nelson’s life, a few years after his troubles with the IRS had come to a head. AllMusic rates the album highly and refers to it as an album surveying two decades of popular music by a wide variety of music writers. There are a number of guests on the CD, including Bob Dylan singing with Nelson on “Heartland,” a song the two legends wrote together. Despite the variety, though, there is a cohesion in the CD as the theme of loss weaves throughout the songs.
Every song on the album is excellent, but standouts include the cover of two Paul Simon songs, “American Tune” and “Graceland.” I cannot find an article about the background behind “Graceland” (so don’t quote me), but I recall Paul Simon saying in an interview that he had always wanted Nelson to sing “Graceland” ever since he wrote it. Simon, who ended up playing guitar and producing the Nelson version, had to persuade Nelson to record “Graceland.” Nelson finally agreed as he eventually saw the meaning underlying the song.
While I love Paul Simon’s version, Nelson’s voice really works well on the song, as he develops the aching notes of loss and sadness throughout the tune. When I hear Simon’s version, I think of the lyrics about the human trampoline bouncing into Graceland. But in Nelson’s version, I learned to see the loss in lines such as, “She comes back to tell me she’s gone/ As if I didn’t know that. . . As if I’d never noticed / The way she brushed her hair from her forehead.”
Throughout the album Across the Borderline and its themes surrounding life’s pain and wreckage, there are moments of hope. The album ends with “Still is Still Moving to Me,” a Nelson original that invokes Eastern and taoist beliefs in keeping on and accepting. Similarly, the song “Graceland” ends with hope out of the loss: “Maybe I’ve a reason to believe / We all will be received / In Graceland.”
The recording of the song on Across the Borderline is one of those rare moments when two musical geniuses are able to take what was already an outstanding song and make it powerfully relevant to a new singer. On the album, Nelson does all the singing, but in this version below, the two come together for a live performance to sing “Graceland” together. It is a a nice way to celebrate Nelson’s birthday today.