November 20, 2008

An American Tune

Eric Rauchway links to a segment of the Colbert Report in which Paul Simon sings "An American Tune." Here's an earlier solo version from the Dick Cavett Show, bad hair and all:

I wasn't aware that Simon had lifted the tune from elsewhere, but this comment in the "more info" section of the above video points to the tune Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded (The Passion Chorale) by J.S. Bach. I gather plenty of people have heard about this over the years. News to me.

…the tune catches at me ironically in view of Simon's title. Not only did he crib it from J.S. Bach (I presume) but Bach cribbed it from Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). It's from his 1601 'Lustgarten, Deutsche Lieder zu vier, fuenf, sechs und acht Stimmen' (Pleasure Garden, German Songs for 4,5,6 & 8 voices) & appears there as a rueful little lovesong of at least 3 verses called 'Mein G'mueth ist mir verwirret' (My mind is confused). There the tune isn't solemn at all but one of the bouncy, syncopated dances popular then. Who knows? As our knowledge of truly old music deepens it wouldn't be surprising to find that Hassler borrowed an even older dance. So Simon also knows a good tune when he hears one. Understanding a tune's past uses deepens our appreciation of its present & this one's proved its universal staying power.

The tune of "Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded" is traced to Hassler in 1601, but the lyrics, epitomising mystical union with the suffereing godhead, are attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, and date to 1153.

If it was a bouncy tune before Bach got his hands on it, Bach changed all that, giving it a formal gravity that Simon's performance takes advantage of. Simon's lyrics don't lead to a mystical union with the suffering of the mediaeval Christian godhead Bernard mapped out in Latin 850 years ago, just the simple and more universally applicable recognition that sleep must come to each and all, that tomorrow will come another day to wend through, however much all doubts and disclocations and yearned-for transcendence may wrestle with one another for attention in the late of night. And the doubts are Simon's doubts, and the dislocations are implicitly America's dislocations, and the hoped for transcendence caught by his lovely dreamtime image of the Statue of Liberty sailing out to sea with all her freighted implications, out to greet the world, for whatever that might prove to be worth, make "An American Tune," despite strong prior claims to authorship, his own.

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