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The Cinch Review

Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is German

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. Continue reading Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is German