American Tune

I am a person who bears the influences of four older siblings. I have always been happy of this influence. Profoundly happy. I’ve never been good at returning the favor, but I have selfishly sopped it up over the years. These were siblings who’s lives happened in eras that directly influenced mine. Their births span the years of the baby boom. As a result I have a strong connection to the culture and sensibilities of the boomer generation. I was born in 1964. In many accounts, that’s the last year of the post WWII baby boom. Malcom Gladwell’s new book spends some time identifying good and bad years to be born in terms of probability of success, and he cops to the fact that his own birth year, 1963, is one of the worst. I don’t like to consider myself a boomer, and although I am border-line in terms of the designation, I do draw from a cultural well that reaches into it. Bowie. Kubrick. Rauschenberg. Beckett. Groenig. Jobs. Wilson. Vonnegut. Cage. etc etc… These guys all come out of, or spoke most loudly to, that big bulge in the demographic curve that I’m surfing the edge of.

But the first of these, the voice that reached across the boundary that separated me from my older siblings, and talked directly to me, was Paul Simon. I am not entirely sure who I would be right now, if somehow a copy of “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Tyme” by Simon and Garfunkel, had not ended up in the weird carpeted LP box in our house in Toyota. I listen to this album now and I wonder what exactly I thought a song like “A Simple Desultory Philippic” was about when I was ten. But I do remember listening to it and thinking it made some kind of sense. I at least knew it was cool. And in subsequent years I chased down all those references. All those allusions. If nothing else, it is perhaps the earliest seed that led to the flowering of a view of my life that can’t really imagine not being based in New York.

Funny story about that album: I remember thinking it was really neat that these hip, cool guys had recorded a children’s nursery rhyme. Of course you can scour that record and not find a children’s song… unless of course you had a sister who taught you “The 59th Street Bridge Song” at a time when you didn’t know what cobblestones were, and sang it: “Gobble-stones.” (Insert image of my sister Faith laughing because she got the three year old Leon to sing “Feeling Groovy!” Meanwhile, the three year old is simply feeling groovy.)

The reason this all comes up now, is that I just got home from tech and Hulued (that’s a new verb about the act of watching a TV show on Hulu) last night’s Colbert Report. I don’t have Comedy Central in my apartment here in Boulder, so I have to get my Stewart/Colbert fix on the interwebs. Stephen’s guest last night was the aging Paul Simon. At the very end of the show Simon sings a song. And he happens to pick perhaps the one song that he wrote that is most precious to me. It is a song that I, perhaps inadvisedly, sang in a High-School talent show in Nagoya. But even as a seventeen year old, I resonated deeply with this song. It was not just that it was from the pen of the first of many personal poet laurites of my heart. I actually felt this way. Even then. The funny thing is that hearing this, now old man, sing this song tonight, I realized that I still resonate with it. More than ever. And that he chose to sing this, now, at this point in our country’s history, is not lost on me. I realize anew that part of the flame that burns in me, was passed on from the torch that Paul Simon has born for so many years. I have fallen in and out of love with Mr. Simon over the years. And I don’t know what I thought I was singing about when I sang this at seventeen, but I do know that it still makes me cry.

The song is “American Tune.” The lyrics are:

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken And many times confused Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken And certainly misused Oh, 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 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 all right, it’s all right 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

And I dreamed I was dying I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly And looking back down at me Smiled reassuringly And I dreamed I was flying And high up 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 age’s most uncertain hours and sing an American tune Oh, and it’s alright, it’s all right, it’s all right You can’t be forever blessed Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day And I’m trying to get some rest That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

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4 Responses to “American Tune”

  1. joel says:

    I may have sung this song out loud when alone more often than any other, especially during the first years living on my own in the USA. Twenty years on the Bush fiasco made the lyrics, aside from a departing Statue of Liberty, seem out of touch with how transparently brutal the country was willing to become. I forgot the guitar chords that used to callous my fingers.

    Then, the day after Obama won, a 1974 performance on Dick Cavett was linked to from Daily Kos and it all started to come back:

    Now that my dreams are slipping away, more fatigued than ever before, I see the reassuring smile of that man who represents our hopes and I know we can’t be forever cursed.

  2. joel says:

    By the way, Hulu is blocked outside of the US. You can get your Daily Show/Colbert Report/South Park fix at the following:

    …although I’m already finding the urgency to seek out these jesters fading as the new rational, competent and humane administration takes power..

  3. Faith says:

    Ruthie got the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album for her birthday in 1967. The fellow divas of her senior class, came for her birthday party and brought the gift. A daring gesture, since they knew rock and roll (i.e. popular) music wasn’t allowed in our house.

    But it did stay thanks to S&G’s version of Silent Night (with news broadcast playing in the background) and the fact that the the title song was a “real” folk song.

    I wish I could remember feeling groovy about hanging out with my little brother then. Instead S&G’s “America” played to my self absorbed teen angst – especially when commuting home on the Tomei bus on winter evenings. “And the moon rose over an open field. Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why…”

  4. Ruth says:

    Thanks to Faith for remembering that it was on my birthday that the notorious album entered our household. I didn’t realize that I left it at home when I went away to school. Mike also owned a copy of the same album, so we continued to listen to it after we began our own household.

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