In 1973 when Scott-Heron debuted “Winter in America,” Paul Simon also released what turned out to be a very popular rock song called “American Tune.” Although written from somewhat different perspectives and in different styles, both songs responded to the same outward circumstances. Simon’s song was literally four-hundred years old, however. The original version was a popular song in Germany during the Protestant Reformation, perhaps around the same time that enslaved Africans in Bahia were glancing back across the ocean and beginning to sing of Iemanja.
Simon’s song was neither written by a Blackamerican nor targeted to a Blackamerican audience, but the rock music grew out of ring values. So, the four-century evolution and emigration of the song from Europe to America also seems to contextualize the evolution of Blackamerican musical expression within a simultaneous emergence of the “Atlantic World” that gave birth to both the concept of America as a geographical location, and to the concept of white, black, red, brown and yellow “races” of people in America.
The song’s original title, “Mein gmüth ist mir verwirret,” has been translated as “My mind’s confused within me” (Faithful 2013). The title seems somehow still appropriate for modern public discourse in a world beset by multiple existence-threatening crises and not even able to agree on whether such crises exist or not. The original song was not political, however. It was a popular, danceable, love song. George Faithful likened it to Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” (Faithful 2013). To me, however, the mood and message of the song seem closer to “The Girl from Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
The lyrics of Mein gmüth also told what the English-language translator of Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” described as “the oldest story in the world” (Vinciguerra 2012). Both songs were widely popular and very influential amongst contemporary musical artists (Vinciguerra 2012 and Gudewill 1968: 96-124). Both songs tell the story of a young man who falls hopelessly in love with a woman who he does not even speak to. It has also been suggested that the “universal” story in such lyrics actually describes a young woman going about her own life, unphased by males who sing sadly to the world that they have fallen in love with her appearance, without evening knowing who she is (Flynn 2019).
When the first letter in each of the five German-language verses of Mein gmüth are arranged into an acrostic, they spell MARIA, which seems significant, considering the religious environment in which the song was written (Faithful 2013) and perhaps also to the music of Iemanja emanating around that time from the other side of the Atlantic World. The religious narratives of Iemanja and of Mary differ significantly. In terms of a human ecology, however, both seem to narrate the birthing of a new and transformative generation.
Within a decade of its original publication, the music of Mein gmüth was adapted into a four-square hymnal rhythm with religious lyrics for the Protestant Reformation, “My heart is filled with longing,” that still echoed Hassler’s original theme. The next major evolutionary step came a little more than 40 years later, around the time when the Virginia colony prohibited drumming among enslaved Africans. A German translation of lyrics from a medieval passion poem were set to the four-square hymnal version of Mein gmüth (Hill 1994). These lyrics were attributed (wrongfully according to contemporary scholarship) to a highly esteemed figure in the religious history of both Protestants and Catholics (Faithful 2013).
Each stanza of the passion poem, Membra Jesu Nostri, focused graphically on a separate part of the body of Christ during the crucifixion (Faithful 2013). This might seem a bit much today, until one also realizes that the Protestant Reformation was a very violent and bloody time of sectarian conflict and warfare (Irwin 1983: 55-69). By the middle of the eighteenth century, the song had managed to cross sectarian lines into Catholic hymnals. It became “one of the most enduring hymns in the German language” (Faithful 2013). Overtime, however, hymnal lyrics adapted to the music, tended to deliver the message in less graphic, more abstract, and more ecumenical ways: ultimately focusing more on brotherly love than religious passion (Faithful 2013).
In 1829, around the time in American spring when blackface minstrelsy was beginning to emerge as an entertainment genre, an American minister, James Waddel Alexander, decided to learn German. During the following year, Alexander set the German hymnal lyrics into the English hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Surprisingly for the time, Alexander’s translation spread rapidly and ecumenically across jealously guarded Protestant sectarian barriers in the Americas (Faithful 2013).
In 1947, during the American summer era of postwar gospel blues, Tom Glazer replaced the lyrics of the hymn with a secular protest song “Because All Men are Brothers” (Faithful 2013), which might also be thought of as an anthem of “social gospel” of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Roosevelt’s New Deal speeches had often been delivered like sermons, castigating the rich for the greed that caused the Great Depression (Kruse 2015). Glazer’s secular anthem found its way into hymnals and other religious publications. It became a popular folk ballad, and the lyrics were eventually updated to include both brothers and sisters, as in the version embedded below by the North Carolina Master Chorale.
The situation that both Scott-Heron and Simon sang about in 1973, seemed to originate around the time of Glazer’s anthem also. Kevin Kruse writes of an anti-New Deal public relations campaign by big business, beginning in the 1930s, to turn the tables on FDR and establish a nationwide faith in unrestricted capitalism (Kruse 2015) as the basis of what some scholars have described as “American Civil Religion” (Gardella 2013). So in the 1940s and 50s in particular, performers who sang songs like Glazer’s (such as Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger) found themselves “blacklisted” as communists by the House Un-American Affairs Committee and unable to work.
The anti-New Deal campaign actually captured the White House in 1952 with the election of President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon. This was the administration that inserted the words “one nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance and placed the words “In God We Trust” on paper currency (Kruse 2015). Tragically, hypocritical politics behind such pious pretensions–that purposefully devastated what this essay refers to as human ecology in friendly countries abroad for corporate profit at home–has been well documented (Dorman 1988 and Koeppel 2008 and Goodman 2018).
When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, he took the outward religious policies much further by instituting politically targeted Sunday services in the White House (Kruse 2015). Nixon’s re-election in 1972 inspired Paul Simon’s composition of “American Tune” with lyrics suggesting the Statue of Liberty as a more appropriate focus for American Civil Religion (Fleishman, 2019).
Of course the Statue of Liberty, originally conceived in response to the American abolition of slavery yet erected during the American summer period of “black code” oppression and violence, raises ironies and questions as perhaps no better expressed than in the Langston Hughes poem “Let American Be American Again.”
The statue in Simon’s lyrics, however, was “sailing away to sea.” It was seen in a dream by Simon’s soul departing a dying body. The imagery seems imply the death of an American Dream, perhaps as once dreamed by European immigrants sailing into New York harbor and gazing at the Statue of Liberty. So Simon’s song seems to reverse (or at least to question) the process of acculturation that gave birth to blackface minstrelsy.
The “liberty” that was sought by those who gave up their ethnicity to become “white” sails away to sea. So in a sense, America’s starts to feel “far away from home,” perhaps like a “white” ego feeling far away from the ethnic ecology that was left behind. and Simon’s lyrics–as did the lyrics of Mein gmüth–express feelings of confusion. It is interesting to imagine this as perhaps the dawning of a white “double consciousness.”
Musical features of Simon’s composition returned Mein gmüth from the four-square hymnal structure of the Reformation to a dance-able rhythm by reviving the original polymetric tendencies with polyrhythmic tendencies that ring values brought to rock music. In the video embedded below, Kurt Elling takes Simon’s music and lyrics even further into ring values as a jazz ballad, while also providing an “Orpheo”-like presentation of the immigrant’s dream.
So if the “whiteness” that relegated Africans into “blackness” is just as unreal as the “blackness” it tried to create, what then is real?