New Directions in Music Song Remains the Same Series

by Marshall Bowden

I’m not the first to notice the way that Paul Simon’s “American Tune” reflects the times we are living in as deeply today as it did when it was written, recorded, and released in 1973. In a fine essay published in the LA Times over the July 4th holiday, staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman discussed the way that the song serves as “the anthem for our troubled nation. Again.”

Robert Hilburn, the author of Paul Simon: The Life, has commented that Simon’s ‘Nixon impeachment song’ as the artist has called it, was written at a time when songwriters were in the ascendancy in popular music. ” I can’t imagine if somebody in their 20s wrote that today: Would they ignore it, because people aren’t looking for thoughtful songs?”

There is some truth to Hilburn’s statement but it ignores some information about the popular music industry in the 1960s and 70s as well as some simple facts about Paul Simon and his place in that industry in 1973. Paul Simon wasn’t really just a songwriter at the time he wrote “American Tune.” He was one of a handful of writers who, taken together, formed a voice that was perceived and accepted as the voice of that generation at that time and in that place.

Paul Simon, 1976 performance of “An American Dream”

Simon and his partner Art Garfunkel had recorded some of the most deeply felt songs of the late 1960s: “Sounds of Silence,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “The Boxer.” When the duo broke up in 1970 Simon continued to record as a solo artist and he continued to write songs that cut to the heart of what those of his generation were feeling as the dream engendered in the freedom and chaos of the ’60s began to degenerate.

“American Tune” was recorded and released on his incredibly successful third solo LP There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. That album was more successful than its predecessor, Paul Simon, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 chart, and it spawned hit singles in “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock.”

“American Tune” was also a single, and it reached #35, giving it Top Forty status. That’s not bad for a song of its depth and seriousness, but consider that it took a performer of Paul Simon’s status in 1973 to move a song like that to a singles chart position of #35.

The Bach Connection

Paul Simon had a collaborator on “American Tune,” one who wrote the beautiful, stately melody of the song almost note for note. This composer, who played Elton John to Simon’s Bernie Taupin on this song, was none other than Johann Sebastian Bach.

“Both of those songs owe a debt to Bach. I first heard…part of the melody, it’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Now Bach took the melody from…it was a Lutheran hymn that was popular at the time, and he took it and he incorporated the melody.

And I first heard it and…in fact, it was Art Garfunkel who first showed it to me in 1968. We were going to do a Christmas album, and we didn’t want to do the standard Christmas repertoire. We didn’t want to do ‘Silent Night’ and those things. So we were looking for different material. And Artie said ‘listen to this melody, ’cause it’s really good, and try to write a lyric to it for Christmas.’ So I listened to it, and it was a beautiful melody. And I wrote a Christmas lyric to it. And the album, of course, it never came to pass, we never recorded it. And the melody was just ‘there’ since 1968 in my head.

And then this year I decided to write it again, but I did take a part of that melody and incorporate it into Bridge over Troubled Waters, just a part of it, and so you are correct in noticing that there’s a similarity in the harmonic structure between the two.”

Paul Simon audio interview clip

The tune is based on Bach’s setting of a hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” from his St. Matthew Passion, and is itself a resetting of a much earlier song “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret,” composed by Hans Leo Hassler. As he suggests, Simon altered the melody and harmonic progression, making his use of the song every bit as legitimate as Bach’s.

While some find the tune to be somewhat mournful for a song that celebrates America, its cadences generally fit the weariness of Simon’s lyrics as well as the air of melancholy that the song suggests. In addition, its stately chord progression provides a gravitas completely in keeping with the song’s subject matter.

Politics and America

Paul Simon has never considered himself an overtly political songwriter, and in a 2011 American Songwriter interview he acknowledges that “American Tune” may come closest to that. But it’s still not really a ‘protest’ song. Some of Simon’s contemporaries, like Bob Dylan or John Lennon, wrote lyrics that clearly addressed a certain political issue. But although listeners can extrapolate a certain political view from much of Simon’s work, or even from the fact that he has continually been a student of music found outside American culture, he has never really written the kind of lyrics easily reducible to a bumper sticker slogan.

He does tell interviewer Tom Noon that “American Tune” was written “just after Nixon was elected.” Nixon’s landslide reelection victory over George McGovern took place in 1972 and it was a significant low point for the Democratic Party as well as the anti-war and progressive political movements. Nixon won reelection despite being embroiled in the Watergate scandal and having presided over the continuation of the now unpopular Vietnam War, which he ended along with the compulsory draft in ’73.

Although counter-cultural protests had helped bring about the end of the war and the workings of the American Republic, as well as the will of the people, forced Nixon to resign in 1974, it didn’t feel like a victorious time. To many Americans it was a troubling and confusing time, a time when many people on both the left and the right, didn’t know how to feel.

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused

There’s a plaintive, tentative sound to Simon’s voice that’s stripped of ego, a pure sound that carries his words in the solemn, hushed manner of Art Garfunkel. It’s an especially vulnerable moment for Simon that echoes a similar moment in “America,” a song he recorded with Garfunkel on the stunning 1968 album Bookends. In that song he sits on a Greyhound bus hurtling through the darkness from Pittsburgh to New Jersey and ultimately, New York City, watching his traveling companion sleep as he ruminates:

Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

But in 1973 Simon’s American Everyman hastens to advise us that he’s OK, just feeling a deep-seated weariness and a lot of anxiety. And why not? The American experiment places an incredible, almost insane amount of responsibility on, and requires never-ending vigilance from, its citizenry. And many of us are relative failures at that because once elections are over we tend to get back to our lives and figure the people we elected will do what we want them to do. But without constant watching, they deviate from doing the business of the state or country to doing the business of themselves.

In the song’s final verse Simon reminds us of who we are and of the power that we hold over our futures and those of generations to come:

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune

The most significant line here is “We come in the age’s most uncertain hour/and sing an American tune.” We see the storm clouds gathering. We are fearful for ourselves and for our families and loved ones, for our neighbors and our communities. We are afraid, we are saddened, we are mourning. We’re empty and aching and we don’t know why.

But despite that failing, despite the fact that we don’t know what we are doing or how we are going to manage we meet the darkness singing ‘an American tune’–the tune of freedom, the tune of the open road, the brave face we put on to disguise our fear and anxiety, even from ourselves.

Simon has crafted an enduring tribute to the power of the American people in the most difficult of times, “the age’s most uncertain hour.” It’s the reason this song means every bit as much to the sensitive listener in 2020 as it did in 1973.

The Spiritual Side

Between the second and third verses of “American Tune” Simon inserts a bridge in which his soul rises from his dying body and smiles down at him in a dream. Then he is flying high above the Earth where he sees the Statue of Liberty, perhaps the country’s most endearing symbol, floating away towards the sea.

It takes the song to a new level, where Simon sees the arc of time, the destruction of all things and the existence of another plane. It’s a darker vision than found on Simon’s other spiritual lyrics like “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” where he provides comfort, or “Gone At Last” with its celebration of community and good spirits.

The vision in Simon’s dream as well as his assertion that you ‘can’t be forever blessed’ go against the grain of American exceptionalism, a doctrine that has both political and religious significance. American exceptionalism suggests that the United States is particularly blessed and follows a course of history that is different than that of other countries. It suggests a moral high ground in defense of liberty and justice that is divinely issued.

In its less vehement form, the doctrine of American Exceptionalism produces what is often referred to as ‘American optimism’ sometimes tempered with a dose of innocence (See Daisy Miller). Left to run its course it turns quite naturally into the Ugly American.

So Simon’s dreams of death and the destruction of abandonment of American ideals are a pretty significant indicator of the anxiety his Everyman is feeling. He’s not at all optimistic about what lies ahead, but he knows the strength of Americans lies in their ability to keep on keeping on.

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

In the end, the working man always faces another day of labor and the moments he has to ponder the meaning of life and death, of what is happening to his country, his family, his life, are limited by the need to work for a living and to hope for the best.

10 thoughts on ““American Tune” by Paul Simon”
  1. Thanks for the thought provoking, insightful perspective on this song.

    It’s interesting to me that, like the tune, so many articles about it end without much discussion about the final verse.

    I think of the tune as being from the perspective of the author, not necessarily an “every man”. Meaning it’s just Paul telling us his feelings in the moment, about the moment. So why does he end it like that; without fanfare or some resolve referencing the breadth of the tune? Maybe because he’s just put in some strenuous creative hours crafting a masterpiece and, well, that’s enough. I have to admit that while I have immense love for the song, I do wish the end were more fleshed out.

    For me, “We come in the age’s most uncertain hour…”, is a triumphant line. I think of the freeing of Europe being still relatively fresh in the American (and global) psyche juxtaposed with Vietnam and other horrific conflicts, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, racism within our own borders… The weight, mistakes, influence and responsibility of our place in the world.

    “We come on a ship that sailed the moon”, the most incredible and astonishing accomplishment in the history of mankind at the time. Somehow he communicates both apology and absolute patriotism in the same breath, to mankind: “And for better or worse, and like it or not, “we sing an American tune””.

    Only a songwriter, and only one of his caliber, could recognize and express the concept of the power, depth and breath of our song.

    Thanks again.

    1. Hi, Norman. Thanks for reading my piece and for your thoughtful comments. Honestly, I think that few other songwriters were able to harness the powerful feelings of betrayal and alienation from the government that his generation felt while tapping into deep roots of patriotism. Together with ‘America’ this song elicits strong feelings–feelings of loss, of pain, of joy, of struggle, of companionship in that struggle. Paul Simon is one for the ages, that’s certain.

  2. This song has always been one of my favorites and I’ve listened to it countless times over the past year. I love how it ends, that tomorrow is another day and no matter what happens, life moves on, and we’re still Americans at heart. You mention in your piece that the working man has to do that, and that has caused me to think how it’s a good thing. Otherwise, we’d brood and overthink to a point where we might become paralyzed from doing anything. Unfortunately the past year has caused all too many of us to do just that, as we cannot simply get “back to work” and the other things that fill our lives. While the pandemic gave us that much needed time to reflect, it’s just gone on too long. Sometimes too much of a good thing, becomes a bad thing. I was 15 years old when American Tune was released and calmness of it touched my heart. Almost 50 years later, it still does. What a treasure.

    1. Hi Michele: Thanks for taking the time to read my piece on ‘American Tune’ and for your thoughtful comments. I get what you’re saying about becoming paralyzed, but I do wonder if some people aren’t as eager to get back to the things that filled their lives before because they value slowing down. -MIB-

  3. Last night, 4/6/22, I attended the Grammy tribute concert to Paul in Hollywood. I was shocked that after almost 50 years, Paul changed the lyrics in the last verse of American Tune. The new lyrics are (from memory) “We did not come on the Mayflower. We sailed under a blood red moon….” The rest of the verse is unchanged. My interpretation is that this is a more inclusive, multiracial view of America, afterall not every American is white and had ansestors that arrived on the Mayflower. I don’t yet have insight into the “blood red moon” other than the phrase needed to end in “moon” to rhyme with “American Tune”. I’d love to hear other’s interpertations. The show will be broadcast on CBS at a later date, as yet unannounced

  4. The ending tune on the tv series the English. Sung by? Without the “we sing an American tune” line which would have reductive.

  5. I used to be in a local jam here in St Louis at the Focal Point, and one night I asked the players if they minded if I played and sang a song that was not really “jam” material as the chord progressions were too complex for most of the people to learn that quickly. They said to go for it, and I launched into American Tune. When I finished, the room was rather quiet, and our jam leader said, “I think that song should be our national anthem”. Another player, son of a Lutheran minister said, “That is Bach.” I cannot tell you how pleased I was at the responses. Over the years this song has stayed in my conscience since I first heard it in 1976, and even though I can play almost every S&G song ever recorded, this one by Simon remains my all time favorite, both for the lyrics and the chords. Your article was very well written, informative, and enlightening. Thank you for seeing the depth of meaning in this tune and the bigger picture of what it means for us as Americans.

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