First, let’s take a listen to one of my favourite songs of all time:
American Tune is a song by singer-songwriter Paul Simon. It appears on his third studio album, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (Columbia Records, 1973). It is an example of a chorale.
In a typical piece of music, the melody is accompanied by occasional chord changes, typically on the first beat of a bar and on other obvious accents. In a chorale, most, if not all notes of the melody are accentuated by a chord change, so the melody and the accompaniment follow essentially the same rhythm.
Strictly speaking, chorales are religious pieces sung in church, but a chorale texture (a style of accompaniment) is more widely applicable. Pieces with a chorale texture are typically slow, grave pieces, which makes sense because, if you were the keyboard player or the rhythm guitarist, you wouldn’t want to be making chord changes on every melody note of a piece that is rattling along. So, you won’t find too many songs with a chorale texture in rock or dance music. But you will find them in stirring themes, anthems, church music of the less ‘happy, clappy’ kind and, as we now know, folk songs like American Tune.
So, perhaps a chorale is not such an old-fashioned concept after all.
Let’s take a brief extract from American Tune just to give an example of how the melody and the chords hang together:
You’ll see from this that most of the chords changes are quite simple, rocking between the I, IV and V chords (C, F and G here) but there is also a wonderful moment in which the E chord introduces a temporary modulation to A minor. American Tune has lots of these moments. You’ll find modulations like this in many chorales.
Until a few days ago, I believed Paul Simon came up with the idea of American Tune as a chorale himself and worked it all out from scratch. How wrong I was. The melody and chord progression is based on Bach’s setting of a hymn O Sacred Head, Now Wounded from his St. Matthew Passion, and is itself a resetting of a much earlier song Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret, composed by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). You’ll get what I mean when you take a listen:
Now, Paul’s version was similar but by no means the same (I think it is much more sophisticated). And, of course, Paul’s lyrics were completely new and more obviously political than religious. As he wrote American Tune, Richard Nixon had just been re-elected as US president. Paul noted that this “marked the end of liberalism. In 1972 you realised the whole country has moved this way and were very comfortable with it now”.
Paul might have felt the same again in 2016 when “souls were again being battered and friends didn’t feel at ease” (thanks Graham Reid’s Elsewhere blog). He also recorded a new live version in March 2020 when the world was again grappling with serious problems: