Monday, February 28, 2011

American Tune

Not meaning to be rude in the face such a lovely piece, but aside from the title, in what sense is this tune "American?" The melody is borrowed from Bach. And nothing American-- a grand old flag, amber waves of grain, or even a baseball-- appears until the end of the chorus.

Let us now, in the words of Simon's previous "America," "walk off to look for America" in this song.

The first two verses are almost identical to each other in content, although the first speaks of the self and the second of the other. Rather than repeat the first four lines of the first two verses, let us again quote the earlier song: "I'm lost/ I'm empty and I'm aching." The sentiment seems remarkably similar.

Then, the speaker's response was the knowledge that all those with him on the highway were fellow seekers, all equally trusting what was at the end of "The New Jersey Turnpike," i.e.: America itself.

Yet, our song seems to begin where the last left off. Now, he reports, he is "weary" from travel and not yet at his destination. "Still," he accepts his fate as expected, and even throws in a French phrase to show how "far away from home" he still feels. Verdict? "I'm all right."

But when the song shifts to the "shattered dreams" of others, he is not as accepting: "I wonder what went wrong." Things were going well and they seemed to be chugging right along... but then, why so much misery?

Perhaps the answer lies not in this world, he muses. He dreamed that, in an out-of-body experience, his soul "reassured" him. And then an entirely new dream began and he himself flew.

The Turnpike must end where the land ends. The Statue of Liberty is on an island. From his perspective of height, he realizes that the goal remains ever elusive, as the island drifts out "to sea."

Which, not to put a point on it, would be eastward. In the next line, what comes westward but an early wave of immigrants, much too early to even be welcomed by Lady Liberty's torch: "We come on a ship they call the Mayflower."

And... more! We don't need dreams to fly, we can fly into outer space on "a ship that sailed the Moon."

When you come to "look for America," you might try to find it in New York. Then, maybe at the place others came to find it-- the legendary Plymouth Rock. Then, the spot millions journeyed to: Ellis Island. Yet, even an island can drift.

You will never find America in a place, concludes the speaker. It might as well be on that lunar plot where the grand old flag stands. America is the answering of a question with a question.

At "the age's most uncertain hour"-- insert your historic milestone here-- we ask, "Well, now what can we do?" Run out of land? Build a boat. Run out of Earth? Fly to the Moon. We're there. Now what? Cyberspace. Next? String Theory.

This is the answer to the "broken" and "shattered" dreams and souls mentioned earlier. America was the answer to monarchy and communism... and everything in between and after. It can be the answer for a person, too. "You can't be forever blessed," by a Deity, but you can rely on yourself and be reassured by your soul.

America is not about finding. It's about seeking. As tautological as it seems, America is about "looking for America."

"Resting" along the journey, yes, as our speaker begs to do in the last line. But only because "tomorrow is another working day." Tomorrow, the quest begins anew.

IMPACT: The song reached #35 in the US. The Brits, evidently, did not find it resonant... perhaps this is more proof of it being an American tune.

After the actual Statue of Liberty itself underwent restoration for its 100th anniversary, there was an unveiling. Two songs were played at it: "The Star Spangled Banner" and "American Tune."

Many covers have been done from across the musical and political spectrum. One of the most lovely is that done by The Indigo Girls, who are somewhat heirs to S&G altogether. It was also covered by their contemporary singer-songwriter, Shawn Colvin.

It is one of Simon's signature songs, even today, and has become part of the fabric of American culture. It would be interesting to see if it is included, today, in songbooks of American-themed choral works alongside "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America." Interesting... but not surprising. (Surprising would be if the naturalistic "America" made it.)

Next Song: Was a Sunny Day


  1. I find interesting the song structure.
    It begins telling of a personal crisis.
    Then it goes to a greater circle, his circle of friends.
    It goes back to a personal point of view.
    Then, the whole country ("We come on the ship etc.).
    And finally ends with the original personal crisis (I´m trying to get some rest, that´s all).


  2. Joshua-- a very astute observation! I had not noticed that, possibly because so many songs (including Simon's) focus on one relationship, so we don't think to look at that as a factor of the overall structure (unless the author calls attention to it, as with Yehuda Amichai's The Diameter of the Bomb). Thanks so much for the insight!

  3. I love that "American Tune" acts as a response to "America." I do think that it is a very American tune. It reminds us that what makes us American is our will to persevere even though it may seem hopeless, even though all we must rise the next day and do it all over again. To persevere in the hope of a better life, for the wellbeing of our families, in the belief that work is good, to have something to do with our weary bodies. Perhaps "American Tune" is a human tune sung by an American tongue.

  4. Anon-- I would tend to agree with your last sentence, that determination is not exclusively an American trait, but that this song is an American expression of it.

  5. I LOVE this song. I love the ironies in it - he wrote it, I believe, in London inspired by Bach and then called it "American Tune". I love how the weariness and despair of the first two lines is tempered by the "brave face" of the second two lines creating a push-pull through the song, the moods being reversed for the last verse. When I am trying to sing it at sing songs I can never get the second halves of the verses in the right order which irritates me intensely but I still always want to sing. It is a beautiful ode of love and concern for his country, an understanding of the wonderful things humans can do individually and collectively and a questioning of why, given these amazing feats, the American people are not a happier race. I find it a very global song and a very sad and beautiful song. And one without an answer - the "tomorrow's gonna be another working day" reference seems to me to be equally about getting rest before going to work but also the work of figuring out the conundrum within the issues of the song continuing, one of Paul Simon's finest.

  6. JDB, thanks for your comment. I agree, this is one of Simon's signature works. And I agree that we Americans can be both amazing and disappointing... sometimes in the same day... yet we always seem to get up the next day and try again.

  7. Nice blog!

    Side side notes here:

    Although known today as a Bach chorale (re-purposed in several of his works), the music was originally written by Hans Leo Hassler and published around the year 1601.

    Also, I read somewhere that Art Garfunkel was the one who came up with the idea of using this music for a modern song.

  8. Ola-- Thank you! I guess we shouldn't be surprised that even Bach was not above being "inspired" by other artists of his time. It is somehow fitting that the song Simon took and reused was itself a reused melody...
    And while Art may have picked this melody in particular, it is far from the first time (let alone last) a classical melody or motif for pop-music purposes.