Saturday, March 3, 2018

Paul Simon's American Tune Is Actually A German Tune

Thursday evening at the Magnolia Salon, a weekly Thursday evening gathering at the Oldenburg House in Carlton, we were treated to music by Bill Bastian. Recently retired from St. Scholastica, Bastian is a world-class tenor who has sung with some of the big names in opera.

On Thursday, though, he came armed with a Telecaster. I don't think anyone quite knew what to expect for the evening as he opened with the Italian number, "O Solo Mio" by Eduardo Di Capua.

This was followed by "Your Song" (Elton John) with some guitar riffing and "Turn, Turn, Turn" with its poignant, "A time for peace, I swear it's not too late." Peter Seeger wrote the latter, constructing the music that formed a foundation for the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes 3.

The fourth song in Bastian's set, and the one I wished to highlight here, was Paul Simon's American Tune. What Bastian pointed out was Simon's tune is actually based on a German tune, the melody "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" which was borrowed from Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Paul Simon, who released the song in 1975, wasn't the first songwriter of our era to utilize this tune. Peter, Paul & Mary had previously sung the tune, accompanied by the Dave Brubeck Trio, with a different set of words, "Because all men are brothers..."

The lyrics, and the mournful nature of the melody, cause one to wonder to what degree Paul Simon was intentionally tying the message of his song about the American experience to the Biblical story of the crucifixion. His words speak of the burden of life's struggles, of weariness, brokenness, existential angst.

The opening lines of O Sacred Head begin, "O Sacred Head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down, now scornfully surrounded with thorns Thine only crown..."

Paul Simon deviates from the hymn in a stanza that speaks to another symbol of America, the Statue of Liberty, which he sees sailing away to sea. People who know their history recall that the statue was brought to New York in pieces from France on ships a century earlier.  This image ties to the next, of the Pilgrims who arrived here on the Mayflower, the first immigrants to these shores. Can the dream of the Statue sailing away be referring to this new era when immigrants, the world's disenfranchised, are no longer welcome?

Here are the lyrics, followed by a YouTube video of this beautiful song being performed.

American Tune

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

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
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For we've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high above all my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

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 hours
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
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
© 1973 Words and Music by Paul Simon


* * * * 
Bill Bastian is a big man who rides a Harley, has a sense of humor, loves making music and especially enjoys singing. Other songs from his evening included "Ave Maria" morphing into "Unchained Melody," another opera aria, "People Get Ready" (very tender), "Look Over Yonder Wall," "Tap an Angel on the Shoulder," and Masquerade," a song about searching but not finding understanding.

At one point in the evening he shared that he has but one gift: "My gift is to make people happy."
* * * * 
Next Thursday the Magnolia Salon will host Josh Danderand and Moonlight Getaway, playing music and sharing their songwriting process that encourages listeners to "follow their dreams and passions as you become who you are."

AND the weekend of March 16 and 17, Pippi is back, Cookin' at the O in the Carlton Room. Get your tickets now. It will likely be a full house.

Got a night when you don't know where to go?
Try Oldenburg House for some Cookin' at the O.

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