Independence Day approaches, so it’s time to think about patriotic songs again. In the past, I’ve written about “America, the Beautiful,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and others. So it’s definitely time for an update.
I wrote earlier that I preferred “America, the Beautiful” to “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem, partly because of its singability and partly because of its tone. It’s a celebration of America in all its variety and thus appropriate for all times, while “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a battle song, more suitable for wartime spirit-rousing than for reflection on our blessings. (In a future post I’ll write about America’s other great battle song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). In our current turmoil over public symbolism, Francis Scott Key’s checkered history as a slaveowner who also criticized slavery has made him a problematic figure, similar to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and a great number of important historic figures whose past deserves re-examination. I doubt if “The Star-Spangled Banner” will ever lose its place at ball games and public events, though, now that it’s ingrained in people’s minds, so I’ll let that debate pass.
A friend of mine used to say, only half-joking, that Paul Simon’s “American Tune” should be our national anthem, as it reflected the American spirit nowadays a lot better than the songs from the 19th Century do. I’d like to think a little about “American Tune,” because it confronts us with the question of what a patriotic song is, and what it isn’t.
“American Tune” was written in 1972 and released in 1973, and Simon told an interviewer that it was written in response to the re-election of Richard Nixon. The tune was taken from Bach’s setting of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” from the St. Matthew Passion, a melody that has been used for other songs over the years, notably “Because All Men Are Brothers,” which was on an early album by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The lyrics are, in my opinion, among Simon’s best. They combine his penchant for surreal imagery with direct and emotional statements, and they convey a sense of weariness combined with resolution that we can all appreciate.
The song begins with a sense of defeat: souls battered, dreams shattered, friends ill at ease. But that sense is tempered by reassurance: “It’s all right,” the chorus reassures us, although just what “all right” means is rather subdued. It’s all right because we lived so well so long, and it’s all right because you can’t be forever blessed: not exactly words to march into battle with. The song’s most memorable moment, the one that everyone remembers, comes in the bridge section. The speaker has had a dream. I dreamed I was dying, he says, but this dream is all right, for his soul looks down and smiles reassuringly. Then I dreamed I was flying, and this time when he looks up, he sees “The Statue of Liberty / Sailing away to sea.” Liberty itself has fled the scene.
The final verse sums it up:
We come on a ship they call the Mayflower
We come on a ship that sails the moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune.
Is it a patriotic song? Of course it is. It expresses deep feelings of loving concern about the country, at a time when “love it or leave it” was a popular slogan. As we reflect on our history today, with renewed examination of our under-told stories, our under-examined monuments, and the challenges posed by our historic symbols and slogans, we owe it to ourselves that patriotism doesn’t rule out criticism and love of country mustn’t blind us in those moments when the Statue of Liberty appears to have sailed away.