Thursday, November 01, 2007

Song of the Week: American Tune

Thanks go to my college Humanities: Arts and Music class professors for introducing me to the history leading up to Paul Simon's "American Tune."

Hem, hem. (Taps at microphone by the podium, adjusts notecards, and commences...)

In the early 17th century, Hans Leo Hassler wrote a secular love song called "Mein Gmüt ist mir verwirret," which, according to my research thus far, roughly translates to "Confused Are All My Feelings." Paul Gerhardt, a Lutheran hymnist, took the tune and created the Christian hymn "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden," based on a medieval poem addressing the various parts of Christ's body on the Cross. The Anglican vicar John Gambold translated the poem as "O Head So Full of Bruises." Meanwhile, Johann Sebastian Bach took the melody and used it in St. Matthew's Passion. In 1899, the Presbytarian minister James Waddel Alexander wrote a new translation of the song as "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," as did Sir Henry Baker. Here is the first verse of the version I know best:

O Sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown!
O Sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was thine,
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call thee mine.

I grew up singing this hymn in my urban Mennonite church, or rather, standing and humming while everyone else who seemed to be well-trained in a capella four-part harmony belted it out with somber dignity. It wasn't my favorite hymn, as it focused on pain and suffering instead of the beauty of the earth and Beethoven. I might have appreciated it more had I associated it with St. Matthew's Passion, though.

In the early 1970's, the Jewish American songwriter Paul Simon created new words for the melody, called "American Tune." While it appeared on his first solo album, "There Goes Rhymin' Simon," it is more beautiful when Art Garfunkel sings as well. You can see and hear them sing it here during their 1981 concert in Central Park, New York. The words speak of weariness, disappointment and resignation mixed with longing. Here is the second verse:

And I don't know a soul who's not been battered,
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 alright, it's alright, for we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong,

I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong.

The last verse, with its mention of the Mayflower and the observation that "you can't be forever blessed" makes me think of the ships of people sailing to what they told themselves was a New World but was actually an old world already inhabited by other people. It's a big part of "what's gone wrong." Still, as Simon sings, "Tomorrow's going to be another working day," and perhaps there is yet hope for grace.

I'm working on chords for the song, and so far the ones that seem the most accurate are here. I'm ignoring the fancier chords, though (B and G and E flat diminutive chords, take heed). I'm currently awaiting the arrival of a Paul Simon songbook, so I'll update this post if I find a better chord arrangement.

A few side notes for those who hate trying to form the F chord and refuse to barre:

1)A new guitar friend of mine said that the word for
capo (the guitar-widget you can clip onto the fretboard so that you can play in a different key using the chord shapes of your choice) in Spanish is cejilla, which means "little eyebrow." Hence, the finger that's doing the barring can be a bit curved and not clamped so tightly and stiffly against the strings... which is the way I've been attempting to barre chords.

2)If you still don't want to barre chords, remember that Lucinda Williams doesn't barre chords either. So there.

3) For those who hate the F chord, here is a relatively easy formation that Nancy Stewart taught me. The trick is to avoid playing both E strings. I couldn't find the chord chart on the web, so I made one just for you. Yes, I care about you that much.


blogapotamus said...

Your former college roommate and her sister once got a fierce case of the giggles during the singing of "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" in chapel. I don't know quite what it was about the hymn, but your roommate told me that the imagery was just so horrible that she couldn't believe it was set to such a lovely tune.

jules said...

I have always thought that is one of the most painfully beautiful melodies in all the world.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I'm really glad Paul Simon wrote new words. Plus, that little bridge part where he sings, "And I dreamed I was dying..." is just lovely.

nick said...

One day, you will find yourself effortlessly playing a full barre chord and you will stop and exclaim: "When did that get easy?!". They sneak up on you I reckon.

In the meantime, a good way to practice the shapes is to play open chords as if somebody had cut off the index finger of your fretting hand (place it just behind the nut). This lets you focus on getting your fingers in the right place without having the agony of throttling the guitar to get the notes ringing out.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Nick: I really hope so! Sometimes I look at you guys with your long fingers effortlessly spanning 4 and 5 frets, and think, "Uh, yeah, I wish I could do that." I'm starting up with the barred B minor chord, and I tell you, it sounds as if a teeny-tiny cow is mourning its last gasps of air. I've been practicing most of my open chords sans index-finger for awhile, now, with the idea of getting ready to barre. Now, I need a little miracle! You've got one? Oh well, back to practicing...

bookbk said...

Thanks for the music history lesson! I love that song so. And now I know why it sounds much the way it does. It makes sense that it was a hymn first.

Lone Star Ma said...

That's wowza song history. Cool!

I gave up trying to learn to play guitar after two years of lessons as a teen because I never could play an F chord. I actually first met our mutual childhood friend at a guitar lesson.

Anonymous said...

I've come back to that song again. I liked it way back when, and in the past year or so i've been listening to Eva Cassidy's version of it. If you haven't heard that version, give it a listen. It will take your breath away. Congrat's on your playing. I've been considering buying myself a nice new (for me) used guitar for the holidays and learning to play some. ~Coleen

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Coleen-- Thanks for the Eva Cassidy recommendation! I hope it's on iTunes. Getting a new guitar for the holidays is a splendid idea, I think.

Anonymous said...

Pete from Stuttgart/Germany,

The original words:
Mein Gmüt ist mir verwirret,
das macht ein’ Jungfrau zart

translate as:
My head is all of a whirl,
because of a sweet young girl

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Pete: Thank you! You are much more precise than Babel Fish.:)