NPR has just posted Allen Toussaint’s forthcoming (final) album, American Tunes, which closes with a cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” and it’s poignant and resonant on many levels.
Toussaint had performed the song live on many occasions, at least as far back as the 2006 Montréal Jazz Festival. It’s not hard to understand why.
The song made its debut on Simon’s 1973 LP There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. He was writing about the sense of malaise that came along with the re-election of Nixon, the Watergate scandal, the long, national nightmare that was Vietnam, the dusking of the Age of Aquarius. The larger theme, the one that accounts for its durability, is the gap between what has been promised and what has been delivered.
To hear Toussaint perform the song is to hear a person of colour, displaced by the storm (an event whose aftermath made it patently obvious just how completely and bloodlessly the social contract wasn’t merely abrogated but torn up), singing about feeling forsaken, misused, bone-weary and so far away from home. Battered souls, broken dreams, a sense of unease. Wondering what went wrong.
It occurred to me, this is a road Toussaint has been travelling on before. Three years before Rhymin’ Simon, Lee Dorsey’s Yes We Can LP included a Toussaint composition, “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” In the bridge of “American Tune,” there’s the image of the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea. In “Brother,” we’re asked to consider: What happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about? Did it really ding-dong? It must have dinged wrong. It didn’t ding long. Two symbols of America, not doing what they’re supposed to. No wonder that, in the wake of the storm, there was an unfruited plain where the Lower 9th Ward used to be.
I don’t know if Toussaint thought about this thematic similarity when he chose to add the Simon song to his set, but both songs speak to a sense that a very big cheque was written that centuries of American exceptionalism haven’t been able (or willing) to cash. In “Brother,” Toussaint wrote: Deep down inside, we’re covering the pain. It’s an old thing, it’s a soul thing, but it’s a real thing. It just seems like a natural progression to the resignation of Oh it’s all right, it’s all right, you can’t be forever blessed.
That weariness and resignation is what makes “American Tune” such a fitting final musical statement (although an unintended one — far as he was concerned, tomorrow was going to be another working day).