As (mostly) an American and (longingly) an Italian on a very temporary immigrant’s path, looking across the blue expanse from where I came, backward in time, to when my grandfather Dominic migrated from Calabria to Springfield, and to imagine what he felt, missed, feared, hoped in his new American experience, no song captures that better than Paul Simon’s An American Tune.
And so today when I stumbled across this interpretation of the song, I thought of my Italian friends now more or less permanently in America – Albert, Mauro, Andrea, Sandro, Carolina, Silvia – and what they’ve said about their home country, why they left, what they miss, their mixed feelings – and more generally about the immigrant experience, all those others who have left the only homes they have ever known and come to American for their own reasons – economic, family, political, personal, who can say.
We are the lucky ones. Even in a time of longing for things so far away from home we fine new things and build a new home. We find our choice to make well, to do well, to wonder what’s gone wrong and just as important what’s gone right.
There is no perfect, but there is an American Tune, which is close to perfect as one may get.
[What follows here is the context I discovered today.]
Yes, the music of “An American Tune” is in a sense a “flagrant rip-off,” since it’s at least 400 years old, which is when it turned up in a love song by the German Baroque composer Hans Hassler. And =he= probably stole it from an old Bavarian folk song.
It was next stolen by no less a personage than Johann Sebastian Bach as a motif for his “St Matthew Passion,” and soon became a utiltity tune for singing many different hymns in the Protestant church.
So it was a favorite of the Pilgrims when they came to America, and eventually was used by the American labor movement for some of their marching songs.
And that was why singer-songwriter Tom Glazer chose it for “The Whole World Around,” a song he wrote for the folk group The Weavers (which included Pete Seeger), later popularized as “Because All Men Are Brothers” by Peter Paul & Mary.
As the saying goes, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal outright.”
So we have to assume that Simon had his tongue in his cheek when he call the song “An American Tune,” since like most Americans, the song is an immigrant.
Paul Simon began thinking about writing the song in the early 1970s during the preparations for the American Bicentennial in 1976. He was planning something upbeat, with a reference to the American Moon Landing in 1969
But by 1972, Watergate happened, the economy was in a tailspin, and the antiwar movement and civil rights movements had become increasingly violent. And he and Art Garfunkel stopped performing. There was a lot of talk about the “decline of the American Empire,” and some people were wondering if we would even make it to the Bicentennial in one piece.
There’s a story that Simon actually had the dream, which is spelled out clearly in the song, of hovering high above New York Harbor, watching the Statue of Liberty sail away over the horizon. And when he woke up, the song wrote itself.
The point of the song, I think, is the same as that of Arlo Guthrie’s “Patriot’s Dream.” We can’t give up on the struggle for freedom, even when times are hard and things look hopeless.
Hmm. Might be time for another cover of this one.