by Randall Auxier
In a wearied voice the singer confesses his need for some rest. His melody comes from a Bach chorale. But our singer, a notable presence in the great folk scare, probably heard the melody in a 1965 recording by some fellow New Yorkers. No one ever accused Paul Simon of being lazy when it comes to scraping up a stray sound and making it his own. They’ve accused him of the opposite vice often enough. I once had a songwriter friend who said “any songwriter who doesn’t admit to being a thief is also a liar.” The same has to be said for artists in general, including writers of blogs. We see, we borrow, we transform, we put our names on it. I want artists to get paid, but I never bought the raw, capitalist version of copyrights and permissions. I believe in the folk process. Artists have always struggled to get paid. Even Aristotle talks about it (1164a16).
But when it comes to assembling a new song, it pays to be something of a scholar. Paul Simon certainly is. That dreary little ditty called “American Tune” has a lot going on. Surely Paul heard “Because All Men Are Brothers” and learned that it was a melody Bach had used in several of his works. Back in 1973 you couldn’t just Google this stuff. You had to go to the library. It is pretty likely Paul stumbled on the English translation of the Bach chorale. Heck, it’s in every Protestant hymnal, and the Catholics have a different translation from the original Latin in their hymnal. I see signs of both versions in Paul’s American tune. I see that Paul went further, too, and found that the tune came from an old German love song, “Mein G’müth ist mir verwirret,” which is how Bach pilfered it. I know Paul took the time to get this translated (maybe he translated it himself). His lines about needing rest and being confused come from the German version. The lines about being battered and abused come from the English versions of the Latin poem Bach translated into German for his chorale.
I think the first two verses are sung from the point of view of the Statue of Liberty, which is why he says it’s hard to be “bon vivant” so far away from home. Her home is France, after all. But the bridge of the song seems to be Paul’s own: “And I dreamed I was dying . . .” he sang. His soul rises and smiles back at him, and looking out to sea watches the Statue of Liberty sailing away. This death is not his own but his nation’s. In the vision, time is running backward as the emblem of the huddled, yearning masses returns to its origins abroad. So time runs back until it lands in 1620. There they are, on a ship called they Mayflower and suddenly the whole idea of America is placed between two bookends, two ships: one to the New World and one to the Moon. Immigrants all. These people lived so well for so long, but now the “hour is most uncertain,” Paul writes. I guess everything dies.
The uncertain hour was Watergate, back then, and we had learned that “peace with honor” meant we lost the war. I’m not sure the nation ever really recovered. Not my point. We have had any number of uncertain hours since and before. Crispin Sartwell points out that there is a profound beauty in things that are passing from existence. He quotes Leonard Koren saying “the closer things get to non-existence, the more exquisite and evocative they become.” What about nations that approach non-exiestence? That is the sad beauty of Paul Simon’s song, not just the subject matter, but the melody and the quiet drama of the bridge and its vision. The way it is presented, transforms a hymn into something that both flies and floats gently away. This falls short of being a lament or an elegy. It isn’t sad enough. There is acceptance of the uncertainty. It isn’t pretty, and the majestic feel of the Bach chorale is undercut by the plain and weary feel. The song is wabi-sabi.
I’m no expert on Japanese aesthetics. I learned ikebana over thirty years ago and still practice the art for special occasions. Still, I just have to trust the sources I read about such things. If you’re like me, you may need a crash course. Sartwell says that the “Japanese language possesses a vocabulary of aesthetic experience that is or ought to be the envy of the West.” (Six Names of Beauty, p. 112). The idea of wabi-sabi has to do with the beauty we find in imperfection. Sartwell offers this list: “the withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthy, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral.” (p. 114) The first four are like the nation Paul Simon sings about. And the Mayflower is coarse, the narrator is an earthy working (wo)man, the musical feeling is tentative, the dream is ephemeral, and the song itself, intimate and evanescent.
We can go further. The Zen masters have simplified wabi-sabi in seven principles. First there is “fukinsel,” asymmetry. Our original melody is beautifully asymmetrical, interval leaps and bending chord pattern that wanders away from home and never quite comes back. The song is made still more ungeometrical by the bridge, the dream and the vision, a completely different rhythmic feel and melody. The dream interrupts the progress of the music and the story. Second there is “kanso,” or simplicity, and here it is the orchestration, just the singer and one guitar. Then there are “yugen,” a subtle and profound grace, and shizen, a natural unpretentiousness. It is datsuzoku, free-flowing and not bound by convention, and seijaku or tranquil. And although the song was new once, it was already weathered, as a melody, and as a poem, by centuries of use. And now even Simon’s song is weathered or “koko” in its own right. As the song has taken on a patina, so has the singer. It sinks further into wabi-sabi as the singer himself nears nonexistence.