‘The Ship That Sailed The Moon . . .’

I woke this morning (earlier than I’d have liked, due to feline interference) with “An American Tune” – the Paul Simon song – running through my head:

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

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a fried who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, 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

Oh, 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, it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying, to get some rest

Taken from the album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, the track was released as a single in November 1973 and went to No. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. I’ve read over the years that the song’s stately, elegant music reflected America’s Shaker tradition, but now I notice that in Top Pop Singles, Joel Whitburn says Simon based the tune on the German classical piece “Oh Sacred Heart” (originally “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”), credited to Johann Sebastian Bach.

Wikipedia, however, notes that “Oh Sacred Heart” was actually the text of the German hymn, which was later paired with the melody that Simon uses. That melody, “Passion Chorale,” was written by German composer Hans Leo Hassler and was later harmonized by Bach (who used the resulting composition in several of his works, including his St Matthew Passion).

So, Hassler and Bach get credit for the melody, but the words are all Simon’s. Here’s how it sounded on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon:

After I woke with “Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower/We come on the ship that sailed the moon” running through my head,” I did two things: As I fed the cats, I tried to remember any dream I might have been having that could have brought that lyric into my head, but I failed.

And then I checked to see how long it had been since I’d mentioned the song here. It turns out that in more than fourteen years, “An American Tune” has never been mentioned here. Not once. I know I thought about writing about the song at various times in the four years just past and then decided against it; the words were cutting too closely to my heart. But today it seemed to be about time the song got some attention.

So, there it is, and it might be useful to remember that when Simon released the song as a single, in November 1973, the U.S. was hip-deep in Watergate and heading into a recession that would last a year-and-a-half. An uncertain hour, indeed.

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