America the Beautiful

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Ray Charles. It is exceedingly difficult to pay Charles the kind of tribute he deserves. As a relatively young man, he virtually invented soul music — the secularized gospel music that exploded into the mainstream of American popular music within a decade of Charles’s initial efforts. When Atlantic got around to issuing a three-disc boxed set of Charles’s 1950’s rhythm and blues recordings for the label, they aptly titled it “The Birth of Soul.”

In a brief autobiographical account on his Web site, Charles explained the source of his passion:

As long as I can remember, music has always been something extraordinary in my life. It’s always been something that completely captured my attention — from the time I was three, when Mr. [Wylie] Pitman [the man who first encouraged his interest in the piano] was showing me these little melodies. My first love was the music I heard in the community: blues, church gospel music, and country and western. That’s why I love country and western today, because I heard a lot of it when I was a kid. My mom would let me stay up to listen to the Grand Ol[e] Opry on Saturday night. That’s the only time I got to stay up late. I heard the blues played by Muddy Waters and Blind Boy Phillips and Tampa Red and Big Boy Crudup. And of course every night if you listened to the right station, you might pick up a little Duke Ellington or Count Basie. But the bulk of what I heard of blues in those days was called “race music,” which became rhythm and blues, and rhythm and blues later was called soul music.

Charles first broke the boundaries of “race music” and crossed over to a popular audience with “Georgia On My Mind,” his 1960 version of the old Hoagy Carmichael song that sounds as fresh today as the day it was released. Two years later he sought an even wider audience with his version of the country song “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” His pioneering album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” continued his explorations in that vein. As with few other popular artists, you can hear every strand of American music in his work. His ambition knew no limits; he wanted his voice to move everyone capable of hearing it.

One of the songs that brings it all home is his version of “America the Beautiful” (apparently performed in the video above for an Israeli audience, with Hebrew subtitles). Is there a more beautiful rendition of an American patriotic song? Charles’s version of the song is incredibly moving and powerful. The singing itself distills the essence of American popular music in Charles’s patented style. In order to overcome the familiarity that prevents us from hearing the words of such songs, Charles begins with the song’s relatively unknown third verse on martial sacrifice:

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self the country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success
Be nobleness
And every gain divine!

By this time, of course, he has our attention. After the chorus, Charles sings the song’s true first verse, but prefaces it by saying playfully, “You know when I was in school we used to sing it something like this…” He begins to sing it a little like a precocious choirboy, but then sings the second half of the verse with a lover’s uninhibited passion. As he returns to the chorus he testifies in gospel style: “America! I love you America!”

Peter Guralnick profiles Charles with his characteristic insight in Sweet Soul Music. In his concise chapter on Ray Charles for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Guralnick quotes Charles providing what sounds like his own epitaph:

“Every experience I’ve had — good and bad — has taught me something. I was born a poor boy in the South, I’m black, I’m blind, I once fooled around with drugs, but all of it was like going to school — and I’ve tried to be a good student. I don’t regret a damn thing.”

In “America the Beautiful,” Charles proved himself a good teacher as well as a good student.

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