Bach and Paul Simon

Since it was Easter yesterday, Anna wanted to listen to Bach’s St Matthew Passion while we pottered around the house.

A certain passage grabbed my ear, a hymn called “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” — in English, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

This beautiful tune was immediately familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. Anna says she’s sung it many times in church. Bach didn’t write it; the text is an older Latin poem translated into German by Paul Gerhardt, set by Johann Crüger to a secular love song called “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret” by Hans Leo Hassler.

Not only did Bach appropriate the hymn from all the above sources, but he recycled it several times, within the St Matthew Passion and elsewhere in his work. I think I recognize it from the D minor violin partita. According to Wikipedia, Bach used the tune

in his cantata Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159. Bach used the melody on different words in his Christmas Oratorio, both in the first choral (#5) and the triumphant final chorus. Franz Liszt included an arrangement of this hymn in the sixth station, Saint Veronica, of his Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross), S.504a.

That’s all well and good, but the real reason for my musical deja vu is that the hymn is the basis for Paul Simon’s classic “American Tune.” Here’s a performance from 1974 — Paul’s hair and mustache were especially unfortunate at that time but the music sounded great.

Here’s another performance, thirty-four years later, on the Colbert Report, and here’s Paul performing it in a duet with Willie Nelson. For maximum enjoyment, try singing “American Tune” over the Bach video above, a lot of it fits perfectly. I also made a mashup of the two; if you’d like to hear it, get in touch.

Rhymin’ Simon may not have taken the hymn directly from Bach; it’s more likely that he got it from folksinger Tom Glazer, who used it in his tune “Because All Men Are Brothers.” It’s featured in the folk music bible Rise Up Singing, which Paul Simon is undoubtedly familiar with. Here’s all that complex genealogy in convenient network diagram form:

"American Tune" genealogy

Bach feels a lot more contemporary and relevant to me than most of his bewigged eighteenth-century European peers. I never made the connection before between one of my favorite Paul Simon tunes and my favorite Baroque composer, but in retrospect it seems obvious. The whole thing confirms my belief that the most creative artists are the least original. Art is a process of recombining existing memes, not creating new ideas out of whole cloth. The deepest music taps into rich veins of shared musical heritage spanning centuries and continents, from the mists of European history through a devoutly Christian Austrian to a series of earnest American folk singers to me.

I was told by a Bach-loving friend that I’ll be hearing the “O Sacred Head” chords everywhere now that I’m paying attention. If you have some examples to share, please let me know.

8 thoughts on “Bach and Paul Simon

  1. I had the similar experience exactly since I had on St Mathew’s Passion for Easter yesterday. Kept on humming until I reached American Tune, a quick google search and here I am enriched with the information on your sites and the subsequent comments.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection on the complexity of the relationship between text and melody, originator and borrower.

    I just posted my translation of the melody’s original anonymous text on my own blog (

    This was a follow up to a recent article I published on the texts paired with the melody’s incarnation as a hymn.

    I came across your post while confirming that no other English translations of the original were were out there. Thank you, too, for the infographic, which was incredibly helpful.

    Mr. Glazer’s text remains one of my favorite pairings with the melody. It is amazing how the tune of a secular song of unrequited love became the tune of a song of human unity, after being the definitive setting of praising Christ in his suffering more often than not in the meanwhile.

  3. As Tom Glazer’s son, I remember listening to “American Tune” when the album came out, and running to tell my father that “Because All Men Are Brothers” had been copped by none other than Paul Simon, but of course since the melody was not Tom’s, it wasn’t quite copping a melody as much as an idea — bringing Bach’s melody to a populist, liberal American patriotism. The first recording, with am anti-fascist message, was for a 1947 NMU-CIO filmstrip, performed by Tom, Pete Seeger, Hally Wood Faulk, and Ronnie Gilbert. The Peter, Paul and Mary arrangement, for which Tom adapted the original lyrics, is gorgeous. Probably the largest age group to sing the song were elementary and high school students. My father arranged the song for S-A-T-B, and it became very popular in the 70s among choral directors all over the country.

    I don’t know if Paul Simon has ever mentioned his inspiration for “American Tune,” but the PP&M version is a likely source. Here is the lyric pretty much as they sang it, an American tune for sure. Tom’s two sons, granddaughter and a friend sang it in four-part harmony at his memorial, accompanied by guitar.

    Because all men are brothers, wherever men may be,
    One union shall unite us, forever proud and free.
    No tyrant shall defeat us, no nation strike us down,
    All men who toil shall greet us, the whole wide world around.

    My brothers are all others, forever hand in hand,

    Where chimes the bell of freedom, there is my native land.
My brothers’ fears are my fears, yellow, white or brown.

    My brothers tears are my tears, the whole wide world around.

    Let every voice be thunder, let every heart be strong
Until all tyrants perish our work shall not be done.

    Let not our memories fail us, the lost years shall be found.
Let slavery’s chains be broken, the whole wide world around.

  4. There are great composers (J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart) who worked within the stylistic constraints of their period and produced incredible music, and then there are great composers who were transitional figures (L. van Beethoven, Richard Wagner) between the classical and romantic and between the romantic and modern periods of music history. I am not sure I would always agree that “the most creative artists are the least original.” In this case, it depends on the composer and the “tune”.

    Somebody had to come up with these tunes afresh at some point. You cannot recycle that which has not been composed yet. What is it about certain tunes that made them so suitable for endless resetting? Was it just the dumb luck of mediocre composers?

    • The beauty of thinking about music in evolutionary terms is that it explains creativity without the need for originality. Consider the way new organisms come about: genes continually get varied through sexual reshuffling and random mutation. Most of these variants don’t make it, but a few persist and spread and eventually give rise to variants of their own. So it is with music. A folk song gets passed around orally, gets misremembered or reinterpreted and eventually mutates into a new song entirely. And most of these mutations are forgettable, but a few are memorable, and they give rise to new musical descendants of their own. For composers like Bach et al, this evolutionary process happens inside their heads rather than among groups of people, but I believe the process to be the same.

  5. thanks, i found your link after listening to Amadeus duo playing it. Also found this video that you might like. This could be the original love song.

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