The answer has to do with a well-beloved hymn, the life of which has inspired a long line of artistic borrowing that spans about 800 years. You may recognize the melody by listening to the song in question, “American Tune” by Paul Simon. So what is the musical history woven into Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” and what can it teach us about Christian life?
Let’s begin in the 12th century with “Salve mundi salutare,” a devotional poem of mysterious authorship—most commonly attributed to French monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux but more recently thought to be written by a different French monk, Arnulf of Leuven. This poem, divided into seven parts, addresses various members of Christ’s body: His feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. It was common for medieval Cistercian monks such as St. Bernard and Arnulf to meditate on the parts of Christ’s crucified body in their devotions. Several variant manuscripts of this poem exist, perhaps as a result of this common practice, which makes tracing its original author difficult. But we can already see the collaborative nature of this artwork taking root.
500 years later, Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt translated the poem into German, and it became a standard of Lutheran hymnody. The concluding section soon established itself as a stand-alone hymn: “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.” Gerhardt’s translation is set to the tune of “Herzlich tut mich verlangen,” a German funeral hymn which itself is also set to Hans Leo Hassler’s tune for the love song “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret.” You might say “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” was a remix of a remix in both its tune and text. But the remixes don’t stop there—we still have a couple hundred more years left to go before we get to Paul Simon.
We’re getting closer to something we can recognize now. In 1727 Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the Hassler melody for his sacred oratorio, St. Matthew Passion. Various other composers have borrowed and adapted the tune as well, but Bach’s arrangement of the tune is still what churches commonly sing during Holy Week leading up to Easter. About a hundred years after the German translation, Anglican vicar John Gambold created the first English translation of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.” Another hundred years later, and American Presbyterian minister James Waddel Alexander took a stab at it, rending “O sacred head, now wounded”—which remains one of the most popular English translations and one which many are familiar with. Then in 1899, British poet laureate Robert Bridges produced “O sacred Head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn,” translated from the original Latin—another popular English translation.
After about a hundred years of the hymn in circulation throughout American churches, Paul Simon borrowed Bach’s melody to write his song, “American Tune” (which ironically isn’t so American after all). Perhaps Paul Simon was inspired by folk songwriter Tom Glazer, who also borrowed the same melody to write “Because All Men Are Brothers,” famously covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary. (By now, we’ve uncovered so many layers of this remix of a remix to put Inception to shame.) When a good composer borrows a well-known melody or motif, it is often an intentional decision, allowing the borrowed melody to evoke the emotions commonly associated with it. I believe Paul Simon is going for that with his “American Tune,” using the Bach tune to help him express his message. The lyrics of Paul Simon’s song describe an individual who has wrestled with and been betrayed by the world.
What is striking to me about this cross-generational collaboration is the marriage of so many different things. “American Tune,” in its artistic DNA, is part French, German, British, and American; part love song, funeral hymn, Holy Week hymn; part Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian; part monastic devotional, part secular pop song. The history of this song is to me a parable. The way that this artwork is part monastic devotional, part secular pop song—especially—reminds me of the union of God and man in Christ’s incarnation as well as His sacrifice to reconcile Creator with creation and creation with itself, so that we would know “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). The fact that even in this pop song, we can find Christ, is marvelous to me.