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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Paul Simon's American Tune and O Sacred Head Now Wounded

Someone just brought to my attention that Paul Simon's "American
Tune" (Many's the time I've been mistaken, and many times
confused...,) which I've always liked a lot, uses a tune that is
actually not originally American.

From a folk music website:

"American Tune - Lyrics by Paul Simon. The tune was used by J.S. Bach
in the "Passion Chorale" of his St. Matthew Passion (1727) and other
works. It was not original to Bach, however. He took it from a love
song written by Hans Leo Hassler in 1601. "

What makes this extra interesting to me is that the Passiontide (week
before Easter) song "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" also uses the
plaintive tune. In hymnals, the melody is called Passion Chorale and
is attributed to Hassler with Bach supplying harmony.

The words of this hymn are powerful and they invoke three Christian
themes (at least).

One is the way that Christians have stared this particular death in
the face. In the best of times, this means that Christians teach the
world to look and see suffering and weep.

A second theme is that somehow Jesus' suffering was "all for sinners'
gain"; that Jesus died so that sinners would avoid suffering. In the
best of times, this means that Christians have something hopeful and
powerful to say to those who have ruined themselves such that no
forgiveness seems possible and to those whom life its own self has
ruined such that there is no reason to trust.

The third theme is powered by how Jesus, dying on the cross, prayed,
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." In the best
of times, this touches and changes us and leads us to love Jesus.

Brian Wren wrote new words to the tune of which the first verse is this.

Here hangs a man discarded,
A scarecrow hoisted high,
A nonsense pointing nowhere
To all who hurry by.
Can such a clown of sorrow
Still bring a useful word
Where faith and love seem phantoms
And every hope absurd?

(I found the song in the Chalice Hymnal, which notes that the Hope
Publishing Co. holds the copyright for Brian Wren.)

Two other verses are awesome too. The Christian theme in this verse
concerns the embarrassment we might feel claiming a savior who is
merely cast aside by empire and culture in no particular special
way. In the best of times, this opens the story to those for whom
the absurdity of Jesus' inglorious ending has been a block to
"getting" Jesus. This is precisely the problem of the crucifixion
and also its power. For Jesus dies in as ignominious a way as any
peasant killed by rebel or state militia, as anyone who starves or
dies rich and empty inside. This "savior" is as weak before the
forces of disease, convention, and power as we are. So, when
Christians have been honest about that, some will choose to listen
further, hoping that this story can be trusted.