Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Paul Simon's "American Tune"

Paul Simon has long been a favorite songwriter of mine. On this Independence Day, I'd like to consider one of his greatest but lesser-known songs: "American Tune".

Featured on his second solo album, 1973's There Goes Rhymin' Simon, "American Tune" stands in stark contrast to the generally upbeat mood created by the other songs on the album. It is a dark and exhausted look at what it meant to be an American at a time when the Dream appeared to be in tatters: long gas lines due to our first national fuel crisis, a disquieting end to the Vietnam conflict, and Watergate undoubtedly weighed heavily on Simon's mind during the composition of it.

Of course, this song has staying power because the Dream always does seem tattered, especially these days, right? Let's go through the lyric and contemplate what Simon is saying. He opens by stating baldly that America has disappointed him many times, not just at the moment he's singing.

Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I've often felt forsaken
And certainly misused

But then a stoic note is injected in the song, one that forms the heart of its message.

But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to the bone
Still you don't expect to be bright and bon vivant
So far away from home
So far away from home

Mention of home resonates, because you immediately think of America's place in the world, and how far we had fallen at that time as democracy's saviors in the Second World War. (I'll leave it to you to decide how steep the descent has been since then!)

But home also works as simply a metaphor: it's a place where you feel comfortable and secure. With the economy in the tank in 1973 and with little faith in our leaders, as a country we were truly adrift.

Simon continues:

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
And driven to its knees

Now back to the resignation:

But it's all right, it's all right
'Cause we've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we've travelled on
I wonder what went wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong

Simon then transitions to the bridge. In his dreams he takes flight from his troubled mind.

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuredly

And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

This notion of sailing away was first encroached a couple of years earlier in Randy Newman's masterful album Sail Away. To quote from that song:

Here in America we get food to eat
Don't have to run in the jungle and scuff up our feet
We just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It's great to be an American

Later the song's narrator invites his listener to climb aboard, to sail away and "cross the might ocean to the Charleston Bay." But now it's the Statue of Liberty that's sailing - away from America!

I know that Paul Simon was a great admirer of Randy Newman. To me, it's clear that his ambition is to write a song as great in his eyes as Newman's. From what I know of Simon, he's a competitive guy and, according to Marc Eliot in his biography Paul Simon: A Life, the fact that "American Tune" did not become a hit was a "major" source of disappointment to him.

Let's get back to the song itself. After the bridge, we enter the song's conclusion.

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

Feeling hopeful? Time to wake up from this dream you've been having!

But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed

Now for the killer couplet at the end:

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

This is such a moving song, and so durable: I wish that it could enter the canon, and be there for all Americans to consider on holidays like the Fourth of July.

In any case, it's a song that is firmly lodged in the memories of anyone alive at the time. Another brilliant turn from one of our country's finest lyricists!

Click here for Paul Simon singing "American Tune" solo and here for a duet on the song with Willie Nelson.

Click here for Randy Newman's "Sail Away".

Finally, here is a link to a discussion of this great song.

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