Friday, July 04, 2008

Paul Simon - "American Tune" (1975)

One of the commenters on this YouTube clip notes that the chord progression comes from Bach. Another wonders who Bach stole it from.

Update: Now I think I know the answer. It struck me that "American Tune" is closely based on the Tom Glazer labor anthem "Because All Men Are Brothers". This website states that the tune for that song was Bach's O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (also the basis for the English passion hymn "O Sacred Head Now Wounded") from the St. Matthew Passion. Bach, in turn, based this on H. L. Hassler's Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret, in Venusgärtlein (Nuremberg, 1613). Now we can wonder where Hassler got it.


  1. How does a composer dream up a new melody?

    "Oh haupt von blut und wunden" is probably the most uplifting piece of music ever created. I get a tingle every time I listen, and I never bothered to find out what the lyrics meant. It actually inspired me to begin a novel that I've been working on for the last year--in between trying to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. It begins at an outdoor orchestra/chorale performance under the Glockenspiel in Munich, circa 1940.

    If you listen to WQXR for any length of time, you'll be able to identify every melody Steven Sondheim ever composed... uhhhh... borrowed.

    But Bach... he hit a homerun every time he scribbled notes on a staff.

    Sorry. Can't help using baseball metaphors.

    Will you be going to the NYGO performance of La Traviata on July 13th?

  2. Of course the music is beautiful (no matter who originally dreamt it up), but, despite Simon having a 1970's porn movie haircut and moustache and about two inches of make-up, I'm still moved by the lyrics.

  3. Great detective work, Claude! A beautiful song by Paul Simon with beautiful antecedents. I seem to remember a clip of Paul Simon interviewed on Dick Cavett back in the 70s discussing Bridge Over Troubled Waters and how he came up with the song and admitted that he was inspired by another tune, he sheepishly laughed and said "I guess I stole it"... I guess to a greater or lesser extent creation in any of the arts is a synthesis. I love that song and love it even more knowing it has such noble roots. Many thanks, Claude.