Monday, July 4, 2011

American Tune as Hymn

Worth mentioning for America's Independence Day is Paul Simon's American Tune. This one has always been a favorite of mine, but lately I've been thinking about it more. Written over three decades ago, there probably isn't a better anthem for the state of U.S. society at present.

A lot has been written about it, including an interesting post by culture blogger The author there notes that the melody used by Simon is a reworked version of a chorale tune used by J.S. Bach in the St. Matthew Passion, the same tune that became the basis for the hymn, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded." That author adds a bit more detail about the melody's origins. I discovered the connection completely by accident while playing through some of the Bach chorales at the piano. And that started me thinking more deeply about "American Tune."

Simon's use of the melody here lends the song the character of a hymn, reinforced by chord changes on every note--the style of a traditional four-part hymn setting. The lyrics at first sound almost conversational--personal, confessional and melancholy like many of Simon's songs. But the musical underpinning keeps our attention focused, waiting for the song's larger intentions to unfold. In the way that a hymn's lyrics serve at once as a simple testament and as a metaphor for an entire system of belief, the music from the outset leads us to expect this song to have a greater significance.

Where the first verse is strictly personal, the second verse extends the perception of hardship to his friends: "I don't know a soul who's not been battered, I don't have a friend who feels at ease … etc." The lyrics of the next section, the break, are ironic, both wistful and playful--the singer pictures himself dying, smiling at himself, moving on. But then, almost as an afterthought, he throws in that he sees "the Statue of Liberty, sailing away to sea."

In the final verse we see that that potent image is the very heart of the song's intent: We are a great society that is losing its focus, that has lost its way. "We come in the ship they call the Mayflower, we come in the ship that sailed the Moon, we come in the ages' most uncertain hour, and sing an American Tune, but its all right, its all right, you can't be forever blessed." The last lines put the song back again into personal territory and add a hint of fatalism, "tomorrow's going to be another working day, and I'm trying to get some rest."

While it doesn't bear out in all hymns, the extension from the personal to the general is itself a hallmark of hymnody. "Amazing Grace" for instance turns the experience of one sinner's conversion, the first-person singular, to a lesson for all of us, the first-personal plural, in the last verse.

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" speaks first of God as a protector against earthly enemies and mortal ills; the second verse invokes Jesus and posits him as a power beyond the force of time; a third verse sees God as a protector against Satan and demons; and the final verse envisions God as a power greater than any other in the spiritual realm. In the final lines of "A Mighty Fortress," "the body they may kill/ God's truth abideth still/ his glory is forever," we see the same trick that Simon uses: returning at the end to the personal imagery of the opening to anchor the now generalized message firmly within the experience of the individual.

Thus even if we ignore the longing for eternal rest implied by "I'm just trying to get some rest," the structure of "American Tune" is convincing as a hymn, a weary critique from the same Christian belief system that has always been used to support our flawed sense of nationhood.

None of this necessarily makes this a good song--many others have retooled classical melodies, for instance, with far less impact. What makes this a good song is the complex, intuitive geometry of language and musical elements--a puzzle consistently mastered by only the finest songwriters. However, details like this, when they work, make a good song even better.

While the writer chooses a video clip of Simon and Garfunkel live in Central Park in 1981, I prefer Simon's solo version from 1975, below.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks Carlton, you've given me a greater appreciation of Paul Simon.