SONGWRITER Paul Simon
PERFORMED BY Paul Simon
APPEARS ON There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973), others
NOTE "American Tune" is essential to any Paul Simon collection. Anthologies without it should be avoided.
Back in 1973, when Paul Simon recorded "American Tune", Americans had much to worry about. The country remained bogged down in Vietnam while the body politic had become caught up in the throes of Watergate. Moreover, for idealists, the Sixties had ended in a wave of assassinations and violence culminating at Altamont. No wonder, then, that Simon pondered in "American Tune" that
I don't know a dream that's not been shatteredOr driven to its knees
He even speculated that the country had seen its best days:
But it's all right, it's all rightFor we lived so well so longStill, when I think of the road we're traveling onI wonder what's gone wrong
But "American Tune" is not a memorable song because of its roots in a particular time and place: It remains a great song today because Simon successfully explores the gap between promise and reality, and he does it in a particularly skillful manner.
Listen to the song as alternating statements, in which the first and third verses represent the voice of the country itself; the second verse, Simon's personal testimony, and the final verse as the collective voice of an American choir. Thus, the song opens with the country feeling "forsaken", "misused", and "weary." The separation of America from its own ideals have left it feeling "far away from home."
Simon then interjects the personal observations about battered souls and general unease, wondering whether it might indeed be all over. America returns in the third verse looking down on itself, at first reassured by its "soul" but ultimately worried that its finest ideals have departed unfulfilled:
And high up above my eyes could clearly seeThe Statue of LibertySailing away to sea
Finally comes the closing statement, first invoking the power and successes of the American Dream:
We come on the ship they called the MayflowerWe come on the ship that sailed the moonWe come in the age's most uncertain hourAnd sing an American tune
From the Mayflower to landing on the moon, America has served as a guiding light for the world, but if we don't remain vigilant, well...
You can't be forever blessed
Thus, "American Tune" serves as a cautionary statement about the dangers of straying too far from founding ideals. It's there -- not a refusal to play realpolitik or approve of the use of torture or tap phones -- lies the true danger to the republic. Perhaps the election of Barack Obama last fall was a public recognition of this. I don't want to place too much importance on a single event, but it may well have signaled a sea change that the country will no longer be run by the same coterie of the privileged. That kind of change is uplifting to some, frightening to others. But it may yet portend that our best days may not lie behind us.
Many's the time I've been mistakenAnd many times confusedYes, and I've often felt forsakenAnd certainly misusedBut I'm all right, I'm all rightI'm just weary to my bonesStill, you don't expect to be bright and bon vivantSo far away from home, so far away from homeAnd I don't know a soul who's not been batteredI don't have a friend who feels at easeI don't know a dream that's not been shatteredOr driven to its kneesBut it's all right, it's all rightFor we lived so well so longStill, when I think of the road we're traveling onI wonder what's gone wrongI can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrongAnd I dreamed I was dyingI dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedlyAnd looking back down at meSmiled reassuringlyAnd I dreamed I was flyingAnd high up above my eyes could clearly seeThe Statue of LibertySailing away to seaAnd I dreamed I was cryingWe come on the ship they called the MayflowerWe come on the ship that sailed the moonWe come in the age's most uncertain hourAnd sing an American tuneOh and it's all right, it's all right, it's all rightYou can't be forever blessedStill tomorrow's going to be another working dayAnd I'm trying to get some restThat's all, I'm trying to get some rest
(Includes brief conversation with Dick Cavett after the song.)
New Orleans' John Boutte -- accompanied by Paul Sanchez on guitar -- performs a staggeringly beautiful version: