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The melody Paul Simon borrowed from Bach

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Simon’s “American Tune” draws its melody from Bach’s “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”

We’ve often talked about the historical relevance of the Christian music tradition and how it continues to influence Western secular music. While there are numerous instances of the melding of ancient melodies with modern genres, there is no better example than “American Tune,” by Paul Simon.

The melody of “American Tune” is taken directly from the J. S. Bach hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and it’s easy to hear in the beginning of both songs. Although Simon’s guitar accompaniment is much different than the choir’s organ, the melody cannot be denied.

We could not find any record of Simon explaining why he used the hymn in this way, and thus we are left to speculate. There are, however, several plausible explanations.

Simon wrote the song shortly after Nixon was elected president and some suggest that “American Tune” is a song of protest, or at least a warning to the American public. Simon, however, said of the work:

“I don’t write overtly political songs, although American Tune comes pretty close …”

This suggests that “American Tune” was not necessarily meant to spur political ideals. As the song was written in 1973, when the popularity of such politically minded songs was already established, Simon could have admitted that it was his intention, if the intention was there.

It could also be an effort by Simon to explore his spirituality. A lot of the lyrics sound a bit like modern Christian songs. For example:

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

If the song were a 21st-century Christian anthem, this would be the point where God’s name is invoked and praised. Simon, however, does not bring God into the lyrical equation, but the presence of the “Sacred Head Now Wounded” melody could be interpreted as a metaphor for the presence of God.

Simon sings of uncertainty, failure, abuse, broken dreams, death, the afterlife, and freedom — or perhaps the lack thereof — but all the while, God is surrounding his lyrics, present in the borrowed hymn. “American Tune” may have been an artistic way to take the perceived political troubles of the country and say, “It’s alright. God is surrounding all of it.”

Or maybe Simon was having a little fun by singing an “American Tune” written by a German.

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