Thursday, November 23, 2017
Perspective

Perspective: Ray Charles' 'America the Beautiful' is our best hope for bringing us together

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It would take a genius to ease the antagonisms surrounding the national anthem controversy. I know just the man for the job. His name is Ray Charles.

Often called "the Genius" during a long career, Ray Charles performed unique combinations of rock, country, R&B, soul, blues, jazz and gospel with such energy and style that he invited fans of one culture to cross over and taste the flavor of another. That he was blind from childhood only added to the mystery of his mastery. He attracted appreciation from white folks and black folks, listeners from the country and the city, rich people and poor people, the up-and-coming and the down-and-out.

"This may sound like sacrilege," said another piano man, Billy Joel, "but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley."

Ray Charles Robinson was born in Georgia in 1930 and lived in Greenville, Fla., a small town near the state line, from the time he was 6 months old. He went blind at the age of seven and spent his formative years at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. Those hard beginnings would spark a musical career. Charles would travel the world, with performances at St. Petersburg's Manhattan Casino along the way. (It is hard to find, but in 1950 Charles recorded St. Pete Florida Blues, a song not about lost love, but about finding a woman who satisfies his every need.)

I remember well the day he died: June 10, 2004. I was in New Orleans, scheduled to deliver a professional workshop on writing and music. A day earlier, a young woman slammed a car door on my left hand. When it was time for the workshop and I sat down at the piano, I learned the meaning of playing with pain. Using just one finger to play the bass notes, I offered my best tribute to Charles, brief versions of What I Say and Georgia on My Mind.

This tribute wasn't planned, but I was inspired by what I had seen that morning on the news. It turns out that Ronald Reagan had died just five days before Charles. The two had a fine moment together during the final minutes of the 1984 Republican National Convention. Charles delivered his gospel version of America the Beautiful. The effect was mesmerizing.

While the crowd was overwhelmingly white, you could not help but notice a change in its demeanor. Some cried. Some swayed. Some nodded and looked up as if it were their first visit to a black church. The Reagans and the Bushes looked on with a curiosity that turned to warmth and then delight. When it was over, President Reagan and Vice President Bush climbed down to where Charles had been at the piano and lifted him up to the top of the stage where the love of the crowd could wash over him.

Move forward to Oct. 28, 2001. It is the second game of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees, a series delayed by the attacks of 9/11. The debris of the twin towers had fallen on a cross-section of Americans, and for a brief interval we were together in our misery, and resolved toward our recovery. Who better to express this emotion than the Genius?

At a piano on home plate he once again performed American the Beautiful. As he sang and played with at an easy soulful pace, people on the field, soldiers and first responders unrolled a flag that covered the entire outfield. Cheers went up. When they created the illusion of the flag waving, cheers reached a crescendo. Charles rose from the piano bench. I am not sure I have ever seen a performer so moved by the response of an audience. It was almost a dance of delight, holding his face, hugging his body in recognition.

America the Beautiful has a rich and complex history, giving Charles the artistic freedom to make it his own. That history begins in 1893 when a young English professor from Wellesley College, Katherine Lee Bates, makes a trip across the country to Colorado. From the top of Pikes Peak, she is inspired by natural beauty she has seen. To honor that vision she composes a poem America, published in a church magazine for the Fourth of July.

After some reworking, the stanzas of the poem become the lyrics of a song. A New Jersey composer, Samuel A. Ward, wrote the music. Over the first half of the 20th century, the popularity of America the Beautiful, grew and grew, sung in churches, classrooms and patriotic festivals.

Charles recorded the song in 1972. In live performances he followed a consistent pattern, flavored by the improvisations we associate with gospel and soul music. He adds "I'm talkin' about America" and "I love America, and you should too," and "Sweet America," fervent ornaments that offended the few but inspired the many — including my dad.

He begins his version, curiously, with the third of four verses, perhaps the least well-known.

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!

America! America!

May God thy gold refine,

Till all success be nobleness,

And every gain divine!

Written just three decades after the end of the Civil War, those lines evoke the most traditional tropes of America's civic religion. They include the heroes who give their lives to protect the country and keep it free. They remind us that we are an exceptional country, blessed by God, but imperfect in his eyes. Its gold must be refined. The second stanza prays that "God mend" America's "every flaw."

What happens next in the Ray Charles version is especially interesting. He speaks directly to the audience over the music, "When I was in school we used to say it something like this. ..." Only then does he sing the original first verse, familiar to generations.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

It invites the audience to sing along, and we often do, a call and response pattern familiar in many churches and a powerful expression of unity, community, love of country — with all its flaws. Sisterhood and brotherhood — from the man who liked to be called, not a genius, but "Brother Ray." When I sit down at my 100-year-old upright piano and try to play it the way he did, I always wind up crying.

I am not advocating replacing the national anthem. I am proposing, instead, that some group (the NFL, MLB, Congress, ESPN) offer the Ray Charles version of America the Beautiful as our hymn of national unity and racial reconciliation.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns may have had something similar in mind. His recent PBS series on the Vietnam War reaches an emotional high point upon the return home of the prisoners of war. His choice of music was Charles' America the Beautiful. According to an essay in the New Yorker, there was a debate among advisers as to whether the song was too triumphant, in conflict with the rest of the soundtrack.

They came to agree that viewers needed an emotional catharsis: "There's not much about our Vietnam experience that is uplifting," said one Vietnam veteran. "It's mostly an enormous downer. But, if there's any glimmer of good news, it was that we got our guys back." Cue the music. Enter Ray Charles.

My dream is to one day attend an NFL football game when, at halftime, an image appears on the screen. It is Ray Charles at the piano. As he sings and swings, and hums and prays, we see a montage of images: Americans, including professional athletes, working to help each other through storm and strife. Working across difference to find unity and build community. From sea to shining sea.

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, since 1977. He can be reached at [email protected] The original version of this essay first appeared on ESPN's website The Undefeated at http://bit.ly/2yWiEQf.

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