by Marshall Bowden
I’m not the first to notice the way that Paul Simon’s “An 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 “An 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.
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.
“An 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.”
“An 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 “An 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 https://vimeo.com/321622809
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 “An 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 “An 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 “An 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.