Song of the Day 1/8: “American Tune,” Crooked Still

Filed in Arts and Entertainment by on January 8, 2019 3 Comments

Paul Simon once said this was the closest he came to an overtly political song. He wrote it shortly after Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972, well before the Watergate scandal broke, which makes its mood of grief seem prescient. I heard this spare version by Boston sort-of bluegrass band Crooked Still the other day on somebody’s Spotify feed the other day and thought how appropriate it still seems today.

Simon released the song on 1973’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” and it was a highlight of his first reunion concert with Art Garfunkel, but mustache aside, I best like this 1975 solo version from the BBC:

The words to the song are Simon’s, but the melody goes back to J.S. Bach, who stole it from an earlier secular love song for use in his St. Matthew Passion. It’s known to English-speaking church-goers as the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and I guarantee that Simon knew not just the tune but the 13th-century poem that inspired it. He kept the melody, added a bridge and rewrote the poem as an elegy for the idealized America of our youth:

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  1. Crooked Still is/was great. Other than an occasional reunion show, they haven’t gotten together in some time. Aiofe O’Donovan, who was key to the band, is now touring with Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins in a band called I’m With Her (name was chosen before Hillary used it as a campaign slogan).

    They’re coming to the Grand soon, and Billy Strings will open. That’s a great pairing.

    Here’s an article about ‘I’m With Her’:

    https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/feb/18/im-with-her-band-interview-bluegrass-music-aoife-odonovan-sara-watkins-sarah-jarosz

  2. Mike Dinsmore says:

    “American Tune” wasn’t the only song that Paul Simon stole the tune for. Martin Carthy is still pissed at Simon for not giving him any credit for “Scarborough Fair,” which Simon learned from Carthy’s singing while he as over in England. Carthy released the song in 1965 on his self-titled album.

    Oh well, Bob Dylan used many English and Scottish tunes for his early compositions, so I guess Simon taking one or two isn’t bad by comparison.

    As Elvis Costello once said, “Every pop musician is a thief and a magpie.”

    • Alby says:

      It wasn’t Carthy’s song either.

      But Declan is right, every musician does it. I’ll have a good example tomorrow of how a song can transmogrify as it changes hands.

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