Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Photo of the Day: Where They Came, in ‘The Age's Most Uncertain Hour’

“We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune.”—Paul Simon, “American Tune,” from his LP There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973)

I took this photo of Ellis Island 5½ years ago from across the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan, in the pale afternoon light of an early December day. I went searching through my photo files to find it after listening to Shawn Colvin’s beautifully melancholy cover of Paul Simon’s classic, “American Tune.”

Simon wrote his song when faith in American leadership had been shredded by the Vietnam War and Watergate. I recall it being played a great deal around 9/11. 

Its questioning lyric about "the age's most uncertain hour" seems all too timely again, with the multiple shocks of the last six months: a stillborn impeachment inquiry, the COVID-19 pandemic, the highest unemployment since the Great Depression, and now two straight weeks of protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.

These events have left me as “weary to my bones” as Simon felt nearly a half-century ago. Oddly enough, though, “American Tune” also left me reassured. I felt it in his evocation of the Statue of Liberty, as well as in the ships (the Mayflower and the Apollo moon flights) that concisely bracket American history.

Like Simon’s Hungarian-Jewish ancestors, my Irish-Catholic ones came to an America not always hospitable to immigrants. (Within a decade of the arrival of my mother’s parents, the Ku Klux Klan came back into being.) Maybe their survival strategy was not unlike Simon’s: recuperation and recovery (“That’s all I’m trying, to get some rest”) before the hard work of a hard fight, for their lives and their country’s, the following day.

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