Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is German

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At the Palm Sunday service this morning in the church we attend, we sang a hymn called “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” and I was reminded of something I’d first noticed only a few years ago (because I am not someone who grew up singing these tremendous old Protestant hymns): the melody of this song was appropriated note for note by Paul Simon for his song “American Tune,” from his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.

Researching it a little more, one finds that this melody is attributed originally to one Hans Leo Hassler, who somewhere circa 1600 composed it for a love song called “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret.” The Lutheran Book of Worship titles the melody as “Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen.” Later J.S. Bach used both the melody and the religious poem that had by then been married with it in his St. Matthew’s Passion.

I don’t know, honestly, where Paul Simon heard it, and I don’t know if he’s ever discussed this in an interview. Perhaps if he heard the hymn, sung in English and out of any context with Bach, he may have thought it to be an American Protestant hymn.

Or maybe he was quite comfortable with the irony of using a German melody for a song titled “American Tune.” Paul Simon’s song—thanks not least to this melody—is a lovely and poignant one. In his head as he wrote it may have been political issues of the time that were causing him angst, but the finished song has neither political nor topical references, and this is why it’s as good a song today as it was then. It sounds like a strange and sad elegy for an America that has all but collapsed beneath tragic and hard times.

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

He has a dream where he sees the Statue of Liberty “sailing away to sea.” Lines in the final verse beautifully evoke the lofty hopes of a young nation plowing a course unique in history:

Oh, 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

But then we’re reminded that, well, “you can’t be forever blessed.”

I don’t think that America was done in 1973. I don’t think—and especially don’t want to think—that America is “done” now. But I guess every age has its tribulations and its own particular sense of lost innocence. You can sense it right now if you care to try. Maybe at some point you run out of innocence to lose, and America becomes a nation that no longer can even remember that journey on “the ship that sailed the moon.” Maybe at that point Paul Simon’s song won’t even sound poignant to anyone. But as of now I believe it can still coax a tear or two, and that’s a good thing.

As for “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” I don’t have any doubt that that one will stand the test of time.