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An American Tune

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When I was in grade school we learned all the old patriotic songs. The "Star Spangled Banner" of course (which came in handy during the 1970s Oakland A's winning streak). But we also learned "America the Beautiful," the Irving Berlin tune "God Bless America," Woody Guthrie's great "This Land Is Your Land," and a whole raft of other stuff.

It's one of those weird things, the hymns of your youth still live in your heart somewhere, despite all the things you learn in the meantime. Or rather, the feelings those anthems evoke live on. Of course, as my friend Deborah pointed out recently there were really two Americas all along, and we only learned about the melodious one in those early years. When I became an adolescent and started to get cynical, I found a whole new crew of friends who shared my basic condition: being a shattered idealist in search of a new ideal to latch onto. But that's another story.

I still sing the national anthem at baseball games, and when my kids were young I made sure they could sing it, too. Most of the other songs have faded into comfortable obscurity in my memory, getting hauled out occasionally for trivia games and ironic renditions. Yet there is one patriotic song that chokes me up still, every time I hear it.

It captures perfectly all the complexity of an idealism that died but still lives; the bitter disappointment and deeper hope which are intertwined in the soul of this country. When this tune comes on the radio, all activity must cease as I sing along. Paul Simon wrote it after Nixon's re-election in 1972, and performed it again last month on the Colbert Report. If you missed the show, here is his performance. See if you can watch it without getting a little misty-eyed.