American Tune

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"American Tune"
American Tune cover.jpg
Single by Paul Simon
from the album There Goes Rhymin' Simon
B-side"One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor"
ReleasedNovember 9, 1973 (1973-11-09)
Recorded
Genre
Length3:45
Label
Songwriter(s)
Producer(s)
  • Paul Simon
  • Paul Samwell-Smith (co-producer)
Paul Simon singles chronology
"Loves Me Like a Rock"
(1973)
"American Tune"
(1973)
"Take Me to the Mardi Gras"
(1974)

"American Tune" is a song by the American singer-songwriter Paul Simon. It was the third single from his third studio album, There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973), released on Columbia Records. The song, a meditation on the American experience, is based on the melody of the hymn "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded". The song reached number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100.[2]

Lyrics[edit]

In an interview with Tom Moon in 2011, Paul Simon was asked about political references in his songs, and he said: "I don’t write overtly political songs, although American Tune comes pretty close, as it was written just after Nixon was elected."[3]

The lyrics offer a perspective on the American experience; there are references to struggle, weariness, hard work, confusion, and homesickness. The bridge conveys a dream of death and of the Statue of Liberty "sailing away to sea". The song ends with an assertion that "you can't be forever blessed" before the lyrics return to the idea of work, tiredness, and resignation.

Billboard described it as a "discourse on inner security while being far from home."[4]

Music[edit]

The tune is based on the melody of the hymn "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" (German: "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden," text by Paul Gerhardt). The common name for this hymn tune is PASSION CHORALE. The well-known hymn is itself a reworking of an earlier secular song, "Mein G'müt ist mir verwirret," composed by Hans Leo Hassler.[5] However, the melody of "American Tune" (with slight rhythmic and melodic alterations) is best known by modern listeners as part of Johann Sebastian Bach's St Matthew Passion, part 1, numbers 21 and 23, and part 2, number 54. The Bach harmonization is the one used in modern settings of the hymn, and Simon's version uses essentially the same harmonization. Additionally, the melody is plainly heard in the opening of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48, which was composed in 1880.

Personnel[edit]

Live performances[edit]

Eventually it became a concert favorite, both for Simon and in reunion concerts with Simon's former singing partner, Art Garfunkel. The song appears on several of Simon's solo live albums and on Simon and Garfunkel's post-breakup live albums, most famously The Concert in Central Park. Simon performed the song live on November 18, 2008, during the airing of The Colbert Report,[6] and on September 11, 2015, to close out the last show of the first week of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.[7]

Cover versions[edit]

The song has been covered by many artists, notably Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Trey Anastasio, Eva Cassidy, Ann Wilson, Gretchen Peters, the Indigo Girls, the Starland Vocal Band, Keane, Glen Phillips, Darrell Scott, Storyhill, Jerry Douglas, Kurt Elling, Shawn Colvin, Allen Toussaint, Curtis Stigers, Stacey Kent. Mandy Patinkin also recorded the song in Yiddish on his 1998 album Mamaloshen.

In 2017, Elvis Costello released a non-album single version under the pseudonym "The Imposter". In 2020 Dave Matthews performed "American Tune" for Jimmy Kimmel Live! during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Simon's own unfinished demo recording, with incomplete lyrics, was released as a bonus track on his There Goes Rhymin' Simon CD.

Use and references in popular culture[edit]

The song has been featured in the television series, Providence and The Wonder Years, and used as the theme song to Ken Burns documentary The Statue of Liberty.

It is alluded to in the lyrics of "Independence Day" by Ferron on her album, Driver: "There's a Paul Simon song that just tears me apart... about the Statue of Liberty and hole in a heart." Lyrics from the song are also used at the beginning of Book 2 of Stephen King's The Stand.

Simon performed the song at the pre-inaugural concert for Jimmy Carter, held at the Kennedy Center in Washington on January 19, 1977, the evening before Carter's swearing-in as president.

In late October 2008, the progressive advocacy group Progressive Future produced a 60-second television ad featuring "American Tune" in support of Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign. The "what's gone wrong" line underscored a photo of President George W. Bush and Obama's opponent John McCain standing close together.

Charts[edit]

Chart (1973–74) Peak
position
Canada (RPM)[8] 35
Canada Pop Music Playlist (RPM)[9] 5
US Easy Listening (Billboard)[10] 8
US Billboard Hot 100[11] 35

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "200 greatest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songs of the 1970s". Cleveland. February 4, 2020.
  2. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1996). The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 6th Edition (Billboard Publications).
  3. ^ "Paul Simon Discusses Political References In Songs". The Paul Simon Official Site. October 17, 2011. Retrieved 2017-12-25. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  4. ^ "Top Single Picks" (PDF). Billboard. November 24, 1973. p. 54. Retrieved 2020-07-24. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  5. ^ Bennighof, James (2007). The words and music of Paul Simon. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-275-99163-0.
  6. ^ Paul Simon on Colbert Report. Colbert Nation. Archived September 10, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "YouTube". www.youtube.com.
  8. ^ "RPM100: Singles" (PDF). RPM. Ottawa: Library and Archives Canada. 20 (24). January 26, 1974. Retrieved November 12, 2015. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  9. ^ "The Programmers' Pop Music Playlist" (PDF). RPM. Ottawa: Library and Archives Canada. 21 (3). March 2, 1974. Retrieved November 12, 2015. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  10. ^ "Paul Simon - Chart history". Billboard. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved November 13, 2015. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ "Paul Simon Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved November 12, 2015.

External links[edit]