In one of his early 70s comedy routines, Flip Wilson imagined a conversation between Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain (and I paraphrase, as the album Cowboys and Colored People is long out of print and my vinyl is lost to the ravages of time):
Queen: Well, what’s in America, Chris? What are you going to find there?
Columbus: Ray Charles.
Queen: Ray Charles is in America?
Columbus: Damn right, woman. Where do you think all those records come from?
Queen (excited): Chris gonna find Ray Charles, Chris gonna find Ray Charles!
At this point, Queen Isabella promptly handed Chris a check, which he took down to the local Army-Navy store, obtained three used ships, four cases of rum and a couple of rashers of beef jerky. The rest, as they say, is history.
Humorous as this interpretation may be, it highlights a very important point: Ray Charles was America. And a lot more, as well. Never mind the fact that without Ray Charles, it’s probable that Van Morrison would still be an unknown skiffle player; or that Joe Cocker might never have been inspired to damage himself in service to a song. Never mind that legions of artists, stretching back in time from Elvis and Aretha (herself touted as the female Ray Charles early in her career) to Stevie Wonder, would not have had a figurative leg to stand on without him.
The fact is that Ray Charles represents the ideal of America, as expressed in Music. That ideal is that what makes us different, what gives us strength of character, is how we are able to use what is formative in our lives to create a personal interpretation of our reality that illustrates not so much who we are, but what we are capable of.
Ray Charles, although blind, saw something more clearly than others who retained the ability to “see”. It is apparent to me in the large body of work he did as a solo artist, but comes absolutely into focus when you examine the duets he performed with other people: Joe Cocker, George Jones, Willie Nelson and so many others were touched by the “Genius” of Ray Charles, and learned, I think, one important lesson: that Music really is the universal language, and it doesn’t matter what anyone says about which genre you should limit yourself to or what type of Music is “appropriate” for you to perform. What is essential to living life to its fullest, to experiencing, not only the depths of sadness, but the elevated heights of joy, is not so much picking the song. The song itself is secondary in this process (although the song, to be truly universal, has to have certain basic qualities).
What is essential, sang Ray Charles in a lesson to us all, is to sing with your whole being, to find yourself by embracing not the preconceived notions of what a song has been, but what it could be. Where it could go; and by extension, where we as human beings can go if we dare to venture outside the safe, accepted boxes in which society so desires to put each of us.
Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” is a revelation about America. Because it poignantly illustrates not only the absolute love of what America is supposed to stand for, but the heart-wrenching sadness of how far from that goal we are at present. Ray Charles knew that America was not, in practice, about brotherhood. But it SHOULD be. It COULD be.
Ray Charles almost single handedly changed American Music, taking from its isolationist parts and creating a homogenous, harmonious and soulful whole. He created “American” Music from southern gospel, northern Appalachian, western swing, eastern cool and midwest and Delta blues.
American Music. The Music of not white, black, rich, poor, ignorant, educated, simple, or complicated.
The tragedy is that with his loss, we may forget how to sing it.
Ray never ratted out a friend
because they leaned far left;
the communists had great songs too:
from all, Ray learned, and wept.
Instead of Johnny One-Noting
like some are wont to do,
Ray reached inside, and realized
that all is part of you
America, Ray never saw
but took its dreams on faith:
that each could find their own ideal
despite their flaws, or race
Ray Charles sang of America,
its separate, equal parts,
and wove them in a tapestry
of soul, belief and heart
From east and west and north and south
the pieces he combined
Constructing Musically the nation
that he hoped to find
A silent moment, now, we share
now that his voice is stilled;
and promise, though some would forget
that song, we never will.
11 JUN 2004