November 2008

American Tune
by Paul Simon

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

And I don't know a soul who's not been
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
But it's all right, it's all right
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 went 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 my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the ages’ most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest

It's All Right -- Really!: Paul Simon's "American Tune"

A song first recorded 35 years ago sounding like millions of Americans today -- how cool is that! Like someone who believes Barack Obama might have a bead on "what went wrong" and might change "the road we’re traveling on." Or a McCainian hoping a decades-long senator with a running mate like lots-a moms plans meaningful change. Or a Naderite who deems Republicans and Democrats the same wine in different bottles believing the right road isn’t yet on the map.

But if Paul Simon’s "American Tune" is about wondering "what’s gone wrong" with America’s institutions -- as amplified by the singer’s dream of seeing "the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea" and concerns for the people -- "I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered / I don’t have a friend who feels at ease …" -- why so much about the singer’s being "mistaken," "confused," "weary to [his] bones," "so far away from home" -- and "trying to get some rest" twice at the end?

Part of the song’s timelessness and universality is its unique linking of the personal to the political -- in the broad sense, not electoral or legislative matters per se but whatever affects the public interest. In linking them, he gives insights into past experience and what it might mean for the future. Perhaps surprisingly considering its informing ennui, the song doesn’t point a finger of blame or ring the bell of protest.

The screwed-but-OK citizen

What do the components of the first verse have in common, and how do they indicate the larger picture? His being "mistaken" and "confused" probably doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust what the singer says -- that would be absurd: why say it, then? If he’s "forsaken" and "misused" as we next learn, then by whom? And if in spite of everything he says twice that he’s "all right" -- as if to fend off pity -- despite being "weary to [his] bones," then in what sense? The list of complaints doesn’t seem to proclaim all-rightness.

The song voices an archetypal American experience, "American" in the title describing both the song and the singer. It’s not just an American song but the song of an American. Accurate or not, tradition holds that the American experience combines work, independence, and self-reliance. Struggle does not always succeed. Employers abuse and misuse workers. Governments and officials forsake citizens. Rights are poorly enforced. Even unions sometimes cheat their members. The promise of a better life through hard work and tax-paying often doesn’t come true.

The democratic "we"

Paul Simon obviously didn’t come to America on the Mayflower. Yet his song says "We come on a ship they call the Mayflower" (emphasis added). That strengthens the impression he’s relating an experience shared not only by other Americans of his time but since Europeans began coming to North America in significant numbers, laying the groundwork for what we now casually call "America" (America, named for the explorer Amerigo, actually encompassing all of North, South, and Central America). So does the subsequent line, "We come on a ship that sailed the moon" -- probably referring to Henry Hudson’s 1609 exploration on his ship the Half Moon, a less-known definition of "to sail" being to display on a sailing ship.

So the singer conflates his own experience, those of his peers, and those of Americans going all the way back. How are they alike? They were and are abused and forsaken. Many had it worse back in Europe -- David Stannard’s volume American Holocaust gives quite a horrendous account. But that doesn’t mean becoming an American was or is easy. As Eric Andersen’s great song "Eyes of the Immigrant" puts it, "The land could be barren and the streets could be mean." And "Some tried to settle, some couldn’t out of fear / Some kept dreamin’ of a new frontier …."

How else are they alike? Their souls were and are battered.

Soul batterers anonymous

The passive voice tends to obscure perpetrators. If I’m misused, that doesn’t say by whom as when I say So-and-So misused me. The first two verses of "American Tune" list several things done to the singer and his fellow Americans, with no mention of who’s done them. In saying he’s been mistaken and confused, he seems to accept accountability. But maybe whoever or whatever misused and forsook him led him astray. Those anonymous parties or entities batter the human soul in a variety of ways, intentionally or not.

Those who sailed on the Mayflower and the Half Moon didn’t have much control over their fate. Individual rights as we know them were not yet established in law, most people living in Europe were desperately poor, and many went or were conscripted aboard ships essentially as slaves. Think of civilization as dominant male humans consolidating power to evade accountability that was imposed by our species’ original social groups. Primate clans immediately punish injustice. Civilization enables those in power to keep or break at whim their promises to those lower in the social hierarchy. One definition of work is that it is what we do because the few have the power to prevent the many from meeting their basic needs. The American experiment in republican government is an institutionalized effort to re-impose accountability so as to prevent rebellion and chaos. But it doesn’t always work. Dominant classes continually find ways around the rules.

Unregulated capitalism provides cover for evasions, with its union busting, suppression of wages and protest, self-made-man myth, and other devices. In a mass society, it is exceedingly difficult to fix blame. Pointing the finger has even acquired a negative reputation, as reflected in presidential candidate John McCain’s assertion regarding the current massive financial crisis: It is time to fix the system, not to fix blame. Those in power, however, are rarely as quick to say that when the finger, if pointed, would land on people lower in the social hierarchy, foreign rivals or enemies, or nonhuman animals. Whatever goes wrong is just the way things are when the powerful are responsible. If one employer doesn’t refuse you a raise or move the operation overseas, another will. Politicians who promise to protect jobs or improve working conditions, don’t. All but very few successful politicians identify with, or come to identify with, the power structure that funds their campaigns and pulls official strings.

All of this is just a background-heavy way of saying the strikingly passive phrasing of key lines in "American Tune" denote the difficulty of locating sources of suffering and dishonesty in today’s America. Though a "soul" sometimes just means a person, it comes to mean that via its spiritual dimension. So when the singer says he doesn’t "know a soul who’s not been battered" -- in the context of his being "weary to [his] bones" and the rest -- he acknowledges a human spiritual dimension affected by the individual’s treatment at others’ hands and by society as a whole. The singer is not a political scientist, historian, or economist. With no person, group, or institution in particular to blame, he falls back on not expecting "to be bright and bon vivant / So far away from home," not being able to help but "wonder what went wrong," and finally just "trying to get some rest" for the next "working day."

Bon voyage, statue!

Americans having come by sailing ship, it’s interesting that in the singer’s dream, his dying and the rising of his soul are accompanied by the Statue of Liberty’s "sailing away to sea." "We" sail to the continent; the symbol of the nation’s founding principle, originally delivered by ship a century before the song was written, sails away, apparently on its own. There’s no hard and fast interpretation of dreams or their cryptic descriptions in songs, but it’s reasonable to note that the singer associates the loss of liberty with his own death. Liberty is that valuable, as Patrick Henry famously declared. In the song's larger context, the struggles to figure out what's going on, maintain optimism and sufficient energy to get through the working day, to preserve liberty, and to stay alive are all one.

"And I dreamed I was flying" -- before and after the Statue of Liberty image, following the rising of the singer’s soul, which "looking back down at [him] / Smiled reassuringly" -- appears to refer simultaneously to the soul’s departure from the body, the idea that death wouldn’t be so unfortunate with liberty gone, and the idea that liberty is only temporarily gone because Americans will restore it -- hence the reassurance.

That is consistent with what was occurring in government at the time Simon recorded the song: President Richard Nixon had been reelected in 1972 despite emerging knowledge that people connected to his campaign and administration had committed serious crimes -- the Watergate scandal. Some of their misdeeds infringed liberty that might explain the Statue of Liberty, for example, trying to prevent the press from reporting on documents Pentagon employee Daniel Ellsberg exposed showing the government had lied about crucial aspects of the Vietnam War and breaking into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office seeking information to damage his credibility. That only scratches the surface.

A political matter

The 1960s as an epoch in US history is often portrayed as somewhere between rebellious and seditious, with images of a psychedelic and drug culture, young people shouting at authority figures, violent police confrontations with demonstrators. It is widely seen as ending culturally and politically in the early 1970s with police killings and beatings of Kent State University protesters and withdrawal of the US military from Vietnam.

However, Paul Simon’s eight-year recording career leading up to There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, the 1973 LP containing "American Tune" -- most of it as songwriter/guitarist/vocalist of the immensely popular Simon & Garfunkel duet -- did not share those characteristics. To the extent that Simon’s songs commented on social or political matters, they were more subtle, insightful, even literary, than hard-hitting or revolutionary. "American Tune" reached #35 on the charts, but two pop hits from Rhymin’ Simon reached #2. "American Tune" is more of a melodic-lyrical masterpiece than a political anthem like Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind," Stephen Stills’ "For What It’s Worth," or John Lennon’s "Imagine." Simon doesn’t urge the listener to rebel or work for any particular change. Rather, he says things are headed in the wrong direction, we’re not sure why, and it’s going to be all right. The ironic edge to "But it's all right" little appeases the listener who might prefer a targeted attack.

Simon’s early adulthood witnessed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. All three represented aspects of the American dream defined as individual liberty, equality under the law, freedom from oppression, and opportunity to better oneself materially. King of course is most famous for his "I Have a Dream" speech. Many people have their individual, idiosyncratic dreams, but it is hard not to think of the shattering of dreams in Simon’s lyric as referring to those tragic events, an unjust and even criminal war, and corrupt and even criminal government. Millions of Americans experienced those events intensely at a personal and political level.

Dream on…

This song came along not only at the cusp of a politically tumultuous stretch, but, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, at the start of a massive retreat from organized political activity toward self-betterment as a requirement to enter the political world. The shift probably arose more from frustration with attempted political solutions and movement of young political activists from college into the working world than from popular music. But "American Tune" reflected and abetted the change rather than strive to stem the tide. It doesn’t exactly promote complacency, though. It says we must remain vigilant and figure out what’s going on, but we’re going to have to keep democracy alive while making a living -- so we’d better get our Z's.

"American Tune" derives its melody and chord progression from a hymn best known as a Bach composition but predating Bach. The tune sounds like a hymn even if we don’t know that -- at an aesthetic level suggesting we locate a spiritual dimension to the lyric. Rather than "a person" or "anyone," the opening line says the singer doesn’t know "a soul who’s not been battered" -- a human being in spirit, not just in flesh. The more closely we consider the song, the more we link its personal, political, and spiritual aspects.

Those are all eternal human dimensions. We see them interacting with each other today, when a critical mass of the populace might be shifting back from self-improvement and individual spiritual searching toward political participation if record individual contributions to presidential candidates, record voter registration, and record campaign-speech turnouts are any indication. Our time is not so much one of protest as of wondering what went wrong and who might be able to fix it. With unemployment rising, tomorrow might not be "another working day" for as many people as yesterday, but millions are also working more than one job yet living below the poverty line. There’s much work to do. We don’t know if it will be all right or whether we’ll be forever blessed, but we can be sure we’ll need plenty of rest to do what needs to be done.

. . . David J. Cantor