I heard a long-forgotten Paul Simon piece recently, “American Tune,” and I was amazed at how fresh and current a forty-three year old song could sound. One line in particular—”we come in the age’s most uncertain hour”—could have been written this morning when again we awoke to an almost unimaginable horror—this time from Dallas. Almost unimaginable—but last month there was Orlando, and last year San Bernardino and Paris, and on and on. The unimaginable is becoming commonplace. The tune is the same.
When I first heard “American Tune” in 1973 (just another song on an album), everything was Cambodia and Watergate and Roe vs. Wade; and I think, at the time, I assumed those were the events Mr. Simon was referencing. It made sense to me—in my lifetime there’d already been the Korean War and the Cuban Crisis and a skein of assassinations—but there’d also been civil rights legislation, a moon landing, and a peaceable transfer of power in a polarized country. A most uncertain hour, but one which was coming to an end with maybe some sort of Pax Americana to come. I never attached any universal significance to the song—it was, after all, just a song.
But here we are, and though tomorrow’s news may offer even more dismal proof, this is the age’s most uncertain hour.
It may be difficult to imagine, but there was a time when national tragedies like the murders of five police officers in Dallas would pull the country together—when they didn’t merely confirm someone’s political viewpoint. But dug in as we are—waiting in our bunkers for the next cataclysm—we have no way of pulling together: it’s become a lot easier to pull apart.
What’s next of course is predictable—more protests, more trouble, more people in the street saying little more than (to quote another song from the seventies) “hooray for our side.” Tomorrow we’ll cross the line again. It’s not that the line keeps moving: we keep moving it.
In “American Tune” the narrator warns us that we “can’t be forever blessed.”
but then adds, with a kind of philosophical acceptance
“Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day And I’m trying to get some rest That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.”
That rest is getting more difficult to come by, and even the belief that the next day will logically follow this one has become just another uncertainty.