But about halfway through this, there was one song that, by itself, gave me all the confidence I needed and more. It was a song that convinced me America has as good a shot at sustaining its culture in the coming century as any country on the planet.
That was Ray Charles covering “America the Beautiful.” Why? After all, unlike the more recent jingoistic country stuff, “America the Beautiful” doesn’t even describe what this country is all about. It just says, hey, America is a beautiful place, and may God show grace to it. Why does that give me confidence that if you have to bet on a country, America is the country to place your chips on?
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that in the game of life, Ray Charles was dealt just about as bad a hand as it’s possible to get. He was born into the worst sort of poverty America had to offer in 1930; the son of sharecroppers in rural Georgia. He was a black man in the deep south; enough said. He started losing his sight at age five due to glaucoma, and was completely blind at age seven.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I defy you to show me any nation in the whole history of this world where that blind, black son of sharecroppers grows up to be Ray Charles. He was a superstar so huge that I can’t even begin to convey to you how huge he was without just copying and pasting his whole (impressively long) list of accomplishments on Wikipedia. If you’ve never seen it, pop on over and take a look. This is not just about selling millions of records – although God bless the man for selling millions of records! But this is about a true creative master, a man who left an indelible stamp on every genre of music. (Every genre? Sure. Try and tell me with a straight face that today’s country music wasn’t influenced by the soul sound Ray Charles and his peers invented in midcentury.)
From the long list, I’ll just put this one sample out there: Frank Sinatra – Frank Sinatra! – called Ray Charles “the only true genius in show business.”
The old songs – even the national anthem – may well be past saving as central cultural products. But we can always make new cultural products. And we clearly have deep resources upon which to draw. If it’s the good, true and beautiful you’re looking for, a country in which Ray Charles can grow up to be Ray Charles has a lot to offer.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, America has Ray Charles.
The defense rests.