By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
Ask different people which song by Ray Charles first came to mind when they heard of the great singer's death last week and you're liable to get virtually the entire Ray Charles canon.
In the 1950s and 1960s the power and popularity of such songs as "What'd I Say,""Hit the Road, Jack!,""Unchain My Heart," "You Don't Know Me,"the instrumental "One Mint Julep.""You Are My Sunshine,""Ruby,"and "Your Cheating Heart,"to name just a few, not only established Ray Charles as a force in American music, it pushed his name and reach and inspiration across the then mistakenly-asserted hard-and-fast boundaries of popular music, rhythm and blues, jazz, and country and western music.
Ray Charles' artistry took no notice of false boundaries in music, and the seductive pull of that one-in-a-million voice, whether sly on "Busted,"or poignant on "Georgia On My Mind,"and "Born to Lose,"made it easier for millions of us to recognize the beauty of good music no matter what its origin or who performed it.
The world began to see that in 1961 when his rollicking "Hit the Road, Jack!"simultaneously secured the number one spots on both the popular music and rhythm and blues charts.
The next year, seeming to switch gears entirely, his haunting ballad, "I Can't Stop Loving You", drawn from his album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,"rested—again, simultaneously—atop the popular music, country and western, and rhythm and blues charts.
"I was born with music inside me,"an Associated Press dispatch last week noted Charles had said by way of explanation in his 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray. "That's the only explanation I know of. Music was one of my parts … Like my blood. It was a force already with me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me, like food or water."
So, Ray Charles made his music a necessity for millions around the world.
The song that first came to my mind when I heard the sad news about "Brother Ray"was not a dance tune, but a hymn: his rendition of "America The Beautiful." It's further proof of his genius that his "lively"version is at least as adoring and moving an assertion of the American Ideal as the more stately ones.
Perhaps that's not only because Ray Charles sang it in that voice and inflection which speaks volumes about the experiences of African Americans in America. It might be that it's largely because we know it's Ray Charles singing—and the Ray Charles of our experience is someone who's crossed boundaries of possibility in his own life as well as his music, and brought us along for the wonderful ride.
In Ray Charles' "America The Beautiful,"we laugh with surprise and delight at the sheer fun he's having expanding the vocabulary, one might say, of the song, even as the words we've long known begin to tug on our hearts.
I also thought of a different African-American artist, Langston Hughes, the poet, novelist, and social commentator, who also spoke of America and its ideals and dreams, though in more complex ways.
Born in 1902, a generation before Ray Charles, Hughes came of age in the 1920s and 1930s, when Jim Crow ruled America, North as well as South, and much of his writing reflected his artistic vision of the search of African Americans for the America evoked by the soaring words of "America The beautiful."
In the mid-1930s, when the economic hardships of the Depression blacks faced intensified and were, in turn, intensified by the hardships of racial discrimination, Hughes wrote two poems, "Let America Be America Again,"and "I, Too, Sing America,"which keenly express both the bitterness racial bigotry spread throughout Black America and the faith African Americans retained in the American Dream.
"Let America be America again./Let it be the dream it used to be … (America never was America to me.), he begins in the former.
But he goes on to say in the latter, "I, too, sing America. … I, too, am America."
Such a notion must have seemed far-fetched even to many black Americans during the hard years of the 1930s.
Perhaps, however, Langston Hughes, who died in 1967, recognized what he was seeing in his survey of the American scene in the early and mid 1960s.
Perhaps he understood that Ray Charles was one of those African Americans in many different fields of endeavor who was proving the sublime truth of his Depression-era assertion.
For Ray Charles, the musician, had already forged what became most clear when he sang "America The Beautiful."
When that happens, the song proclaims, Ray Charles: American.
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