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The Boomer Hymnal: Simon & Garfunkle’s “American Tune” is not so American (then again perhaps it is)

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 hour and sing an American tune…

Or a Bach tune…

The melody has a long history. It wasn’t original with Bach either, or even with the guy he got it from. It started as a secular song by a composer named Hans Leo Hassler in 1601, called Mein G’Mut is Mir Verwirret. About fifty years later, a composer named Paul Gerhardt changed the rhythm and set sacred words to it, using it as a hymn. He called it O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. Bach took that hymn and set the melody in his St. Matthew’s Passion, where it recurs multiple times (the Passion is quite long). In this setting, it is sung chorale style, it is not an instrumental piece. It’s used a few other times before Paul Simon gets to it, but those times are basically settings of what Bach did. Liszt used it but altered it very little. There’s an American version from the ’40’s called Because All Men Are Brothers which was recorded by a few people – there’s even a Dave Brubeck version. Then we get to Simon, who altered it a lot more than anyone else after Bach, bringing something new to the use of the melody.

And then there’s “Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded.”

O Sacred Head, now wounded,
With grief and pain weighed down,
How scornfully surrounded,
With thorns Thine only crown!
How pale Thou art with anguish,
With sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
Which once was bright as morn!

O Lord of Life and Glory,
What bliss till now was Thine!
I read the wondrous story,
I joy to call Thee mine!
Thy grief and Thy compassion
Were all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.

What language shall I borrow
To praise Thee, heavenly Friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
Lord, make me Thine forever,
Nor let me faithless prove;
O let me never, never
Abuse such dying love!

Be near me, Lord, when dying;
O, show Thyself to me;
And for my succour flying,
Come, Lord, to set me free:
These eyes, new faith receiving,
From Jesus shall not move;
For he who dies believing
Dies safely through Thy love.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • PA Cat August 16, 2020, 1:44 PM

    Thanks for this post, Gerard. Good Friday this year was a painful first: I couldn’t go to church to join in the singing of Gerhardt’s traditional hymn, courtesy of a secular American gummint’s lockdown. One brief end note to Ortega’s version: the Latin original that Gerhardt reshaped into German (it’s not a strict translation) is no longer attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux but to a thirteenth-century monk named Arnulf of Louvain.

    Arnulf’s Latin:
    Salve, caput cruentatum,
    Totum spinis coronatum,
    Conquassatum, vulneratum,
    Arundine sic verberatum
    Facie sputis illita.

    Gerhardt’s German:
    O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,
    Voll Schmerz und voller Hohn,
    O Haupt, zum Spott gebunden
    Mit einer Dornenkron;
    O Haupt, sonst schön gezieret
    Mit höchster Ehr’ und Zier,
    Jetzt aber höchst schimpfieret:
    Gegrüßet sei’st du mir!

    And here is Bach’s chorale setting of Gerhardt’s hymn sung by the Thomanerchor, the choir of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where he served as cantor from 1723 until his death in 1750:

    German tune? American tune? I think Bach helped to make it a universal tune.

  • Phil in Englewood August 16, 2020, 2:18 PM

    I love coming to American Digest. Always interesting, always illuminating, and pretty darn often, Gerard breathes wonder into the world, one post at a time. Thank you, Gerard. Thank you very much.

  • Auntie Analogue August 16, 2020, 2:54 PM

    The hymn’s lyrics that I learned in parochial school:

    O Sacrament most Holy.
    O Sacrament Divine
    All praise and all thanksgiving
    be every moment Thine.

  • Ron August 16, 2020, 4:33 PM

    “Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded” is really powerful – must be because the tune it’s based on.

  • Anonymous August 17, 2020, 5:08 AM

    How about Seals & Croft? I can remember their records playing endlessly around my house growing up.

  • Aggie August 17, 2020, 6:56 AM

    Oh the threads that weave through history and remind us of the textures and glories of life.

    Thank you!