NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 16: (L-R) Paul Simon and Malcolm Gladwell speak onstage during the 2024 PEN America Literary Gala. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for PEN America)


More than 50 years ago, Paul Simon wrote “American Tune” in response to events of the time. In accepting the 2024 PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, Simon sang the song to reflect on a new era, and in these remarks, argues there is hope for a better future through art. 

Thank you. I wrote that song more than 50 years ago in the wake of Richard Nixon’s re-election. And with a memory of the Kent State massacre still fresh.

There are songs that can inhabit two eras and speak truth to both. But if you asked me if I was prescient in 1972 when I wrote “American Tune,” I’d say I was describing the zeitgeist. The mood today is uncomfortably similar to those days and we might ask ourselves, what have we learned since that troubled time?

Well, we’ve learned that we are slow learners. Overwhelming evidence of global warming hasn’t driven us to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently. We’ve learned that the Baby Boomers are having their last taste of power. And with another historic presidential election looming, that the tidal undertow of the civil war is still pulling us into old antagonisms. There are two countries, stitched together by language and the Super Bowl.

We’ve learned that the student protests that roiled campuses back in the day were morally invigorating, naive and transitory. It took years for the American public to turn against the war in Vietnam. And the backlash against the student demonstrations today portend the same attenuated timeline. Anti-semitism, like a plague of locusts, is cyclical and we may be nearing a peak of one of those cycles now. 

We’ve learned that the cause we are supporting tonight — PEN’s valid commitment to protect writers everywhere from censorship, coercion and imprisonment — is more urgently needed than ever. What can we do about this? 

Before I fail to answer that question, allow me to digress. As a songwriter and the recipient of this year’s Audible Literary Service Award, I’d like to point out that PEN, the acronym for Poets, Essayists, and Novelists, has no s in it. Songs are the ancestors of poetry, essays and novels. The acronym could read, PENS or SNEP. That would be accurate. Not as clever, not likely to happen, just a thought.

What can we do in the face of these seemingly mountainous problems? The worst case scenario would have us staring into a cultural and political abyss. That’s not going to happen.

Here are lines by the Nobel laureate poet Wisława Szymborska:

an abyss, but a little bridge, 

a little bridge, but shaky, 

shaky, but the only, 

there’s no other.

We will have to build that bridge. There is no other choice for us. We have the resources to make the future a better place. Art is a weapon of peace. When we meet again in 50 years, there will be some other American tune that describes a more optimistic time in our country. That will be our legacy.