Ray Charles Just Did July 4 on Labor Day, and Man, It Really Worked

Over the Labor Day weekend I took my family on vacation to the Wisconsin Dells and we got an unexpected treat: Back in July they had been forced to cancel the town’s fireworks display due to dry weather. So the whole town had July 4 on Labor Day, with patriotic decorations all over town, and the huge fireworks show that night – becuase why not?

It was my six-year-old daughter’s first real fireworks. And she loved it to within an inch of its life. Beautiful moment.

Things didn’t start out too well, though, because when the fireworks began, our hotel began blasting “Born in the U.S.A.” As everyone knows, that’s a song about how evil America is because we fought in Vietnam. (Tell it to the survivors of the genocide that followed after we gave up the fight – if you can find one.) Then they played “R-O-C-K in the U-S-A,” which, while at least not explicitly anti-American, does not exactly inspire confidence in the continuing strength of America’s cultural reserves.

So I’m sitting there, and while my six-year-old is dazzled by the fireworks, I’m starting to get really worried about whether there’s still an America worth saving for her. Sure, I can tell her what the fireworks are really about, but if she only hears it from me, it’s not a real national identity. If the hotel doesn’t play it, it’s not a culture.

The next song to come on was “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which is sappy and not impressive musically, but at least explicitly appeals to the fact that Amercia is aboutsomething. And thankfully, every song after that did the same – it was something with an explicit appeal to what America is all about.

However, almsot all the songs were relatively recent (“Red, White and Blue”; “American Soldier”), all bearing the heavy stamp of their origin as products of culture war and cultural anxiety. These are the songs a culture makes when it’s weak. And they’re not much better musically than “God Bless the U.S.A.”

The national anthem was played, but in instrumental only – no scanning of difficult 19th century poetry for us! Worse, they didn’t even play the whole frikkin’ song. They started it halfway through.

So things weren’t getting a whole lot better in terms of confidence building. Is this enough to sustain a culture?

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.

5 Thoughts.

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  2. Every Friday night conservative radio broadcaster Mark Levin concludes his week with Ray Charles’ “America the Beautiful.”

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