An American Tune

Casey Seiler’s column this morning (Sunday, Nov. 1) knocked it out of the park. Now editor of the Albany Times-Union, he’s written about nearly everything a reporter can, including concert reviews, where we’d occasionally meet up.

For more than 20 years, I’ve joined the same crew of music-crazed friends to meet in the dead of winter, usually in the far Adirondacks, to listen to, discuss and geek out on music. By tradition, we now end each meet-up with the late, great Allen Toussaint’s immortal cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” – which Seiler hails here.

It’s the perfect hymn for our times.

Hearing Simon sing “American Tune” feels incomplete compared to Toussaint’s. In his voice, we can hear everything human and essential about him: His age, his race, his hometown, his weariness and resilience.

Before sharing Seiler’s words, let me recall seeing him at some Jazz Fests in his native New Orleans. At the start of a pulsating, powerful showcase of his music, his 14-piece band was cooking a hot groove just fine when Toussaint came out to join them. They immediately all played better: The Boss is here, let’s go!

Then, at a later Jazz Fest, I was leaving the photo pit after Cecile McLorin Salvant had sung her heart out, and I met Mr. Toussaint, coming in to speak with her. Everybody in the stage and security crews knew him; everybody said, “Hello, Mr. Toussaint.” He answered every person. His dark green Rolls-Royce convertible parked outside the Jazz Tent bore the Louisiana license plate “PIANO.” Nobody else got to park that close. As I bagged my camera in the barricade gap, we both stopped; I was in his way and I had recognized him. And I’ve been grateful ever since for the chance to tell him how very much all his music means to me.

A song for the weary


Next week marks five years since the death of Allen Toussaint, a true renaissance figure in American popular music. With just a few days left before what’s likely to be a fractious Election Day and the nation facing yet another surge in coronavirus infections, that’s enough of a hook for me to exploit to write about something, anything other than politics or the pandemic.

Or sort of — you can decide by the time we’re done.

A masterful piano player and vocalist, Toussaint wrote classic songs — funk, soul, R&B and more —ranging from “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Fortune Teller” to “Mother in Law” and “Southern Nights”; those songs that have been covered, respectively, by artists as wildly diverse as Devo, the Rolling Stones, Ernie K-Doe and Glen Campbell. He was a masterful producer of singles and albums by the Meters and Labelle, and wrote the horn charts for productions such as The Band’s “Last Waltz” farewell concert.

I volunteered to interview Toussaint over the phone for the Times Union in 2014, as a preview of his appearance at Mass MoCA. He was every bit the courtly gentleman I had anticipated, answering my questions in a quiet, thoughtful voice that at times seemed to hover just a few clicks of the dial above a whisper.

He talked about losing his home in Hurricane Katrina nine years earlier, a catastrophe that forced him to leave New Orleans and resettle for an extended period in New York City. He spoke of the collaborations and friendships he had made during his exile as “a blessing.”

Near the end of our interview, I asked the 75-year-old Toussaint if new songs and compositions were still occurring to him as readily as when he was younger.

“Now more than ever before! I wake up in a hurry to get to the pen and page,” he said. “Yes — I’m inspired because I move around more than I used to, and inspiration is every door I open, every corner I turn, every other way I turn my head to look. And I enjoy inspiration all the time; it makes life so wonderful. Just on my own, I’m simply the me that I know, and after a while the me that I know is not very exciting. But all the new things that happen around me — everything is a surprise.”

I’ve interviewed a lot of people, including artists whose work has inspired me immeasurably. But I don’t think I’ve ever gotten an answer to a question that has stayed with me like Toussaint’s. I’d put it up there with my favorite passages from Walt Whitman, who once wrote in a slightly more fist-shaking mode: “I do not snivel that snivel the world over,/That months are vacuums and the ground but wallow and filth,/That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the end but threadbare crape and tears.”

If you want to see and hear Toussaint’s knack for creation in action, go listen to his version of “American Tune,” a song that Paul Simon released on the 1973 album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” which included production contributions from Toussaint.

You’ve almost certainly heard the song, which over the course of five decades has been covered as often as Toussaint’s most popular compositions. It’s about being wrung-out, dog-weary, as beaten down as a man or woman might feel after watching their home and possessions washed away by a hurricane or seeing a loved one ferried to the hospital: “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease,” the singer tells us. “I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered, or driven to its knees.”

In the last verse, he dreams of his own death, and his soul rising over the scene of the Statue of Liberty departing New York Harbor, destination unknown. “I don’t write overtly political songs,” Simon once told an interviewer, “although ‘American Tune’ comes pretty close, as it was written just after Nixon was elected.”

Toussaint had been performing the song live as part of his touring act, and recorded it back home in New Orleans a month before suffering a fatal heart attack after a concert in Madrid.

In recent months, I’ve gone back to Toussaint’s version every few weeks — it’s a salve, even as the singer concludes by wishing for nothing more than rest in the face of “the age’s most uncertain hour,” and all that’s gone wrong.

There’s comfort in knowing that this expression of resilience at the edge of despair is five decades old, and immense strength to be drawn from the way that Toussaint’s velvet tenor wraps around his piano.

He sounds beaten down but not yet defeated — American to the bone.