American Tune - Paul Simon (1973)
There is nothing I can say about this masterwork of a song from one of our nation's finest treasures that isn't summed up in an article Andy Whitman wrote for Paste Magazine in 2005. I turn the floor over to him now:
It is a restless 3:00 a.m., the most melancholic hour for insomniacs. And it is a month near the dispirited end of a hellish year in which too many people have died. Sometimes I can block it out, and sometimes I can’t. The thoughts that swirl around my brain tell me that tonight I can’t.
The house settles around me. Everyone else is asleep. It is a Thursday night; work beckons again in just a few short hours. But sleep is not going to come, at least for a while, and so I wander downstairs, check my e-mail, read the CNN headlines, and look out my window at the few lights still on in my neighborhood, wondering who else is up and prowling their hallways. I put on the headphones and settle back with an old, familiar friend, Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” It is the perfect late night musical accompaniment to insomnia; its somber, stately melody cribbed from a J.S. Bach chorale, Simon’s gentle, hushed delivery unsuccessfully masking the images that churn with nocturnal disquiet:
I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
but it's alright, it's alright
for we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
road we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong
It is an American tune from the early 1970s, conceived in a far different world that still encompassed Ho Chi Minh and Richard Nixon, the fresh memories of Kent State and My Lai, but it is a sentiment that must sound all too contemporary to those who descend daily to London tube stations, who fearfully cross Baghdad streets, or who inhabit the splintered ruins of hundreds of Asian villages and towns inundated by tsunami. It must ring in the ears of those who endure genocide in Darfur, in those who suffer from the AIDS plague throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Death carries no passport, and it is no respecter of nations. And we too here in America have heard that insistent refrain. Poor New Orleans, pummeled and drowned, struggles to return to something approaching normal life. Where I live, in Ohio, a Cleveland suburb loses 14 of its young men in one bloody day in Iraq, and a community seeks to comprehend the gaping hole at its heart. Even closer to home, my father-in-law lies in his newly dug grave, and two dear family members battle cancer. And at 3:00 a.m., I can’t help it. I wonder what's gone wrong.
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
Oh, and it's alright, it's alright, it's alright
You can't be forever blessed
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
We cross the oceans and send rockets hurtling to the moon, planting our flag on whatever scrap of rock we can find, claiming the land and its allegiance as our own. But it is not our own. We are misfits and strangers here, still apt to be blown away by winds or bullets, always voyaging, never able to escape from ourselves or the inevitability of our demise. And there are days when it appears we have learned nothing, least of all how to love. Just turn on the news. Or take a look at my heart. I think of the words I have spattered this year like bullets, fired willy-nilly out of anger, arrogance, stupidity, even naivete, always amazed that the gun goes off when I pull the trigger, always slightly stunned when that smell in the air turns out to be gunpowder and not the sweet perfume of the roses I scatter in my mind. It is the shock of recognition, the one clear moment that comes only when all the distractions and entertainments have faded, when there are no more excuses, when the mirror reflects back our true image. What can you do? In my case, you pray. And you play the single greatest song of a singularly great American songwriter. You shut up and listen. Some nights that’s the best thing you can do.
And in my case I sit in my office, bathed in the blue glow of a computer monitor in a darkened room, pounding out this grim end-of-the-year reckoning. I will not be sad to see the end of 2005. Auld Lang Syne, and good riddance. We traffic in sorrow, the real hard coin of the realm, and music sometimes speaks hard truths. Tonight I listen to Paul Simon, to a beautiful melody and words that sting, and ponder the minor miracles: how we manage to rise above the broken heartedness and our own damned culpability, how we somehow find the strength and courage to get up, bleary eyed, and do it all over again.
Simon's lyrics and musical reinterpretation of a Bach chorale has enchanted generations of musicians. Here's a sampling of the best of their versions.