A Black Theology of “America The Beautiful”
In the 40 years since Ray Charles first recorded “America the Beautiful” (on his album, Message from the People), it has become perhaps the best-loved and most widely known version of Katherine Lee Bates’ great patriotic hymn. That’s not surprising. In addition to his talents as a composer and bandleader, Ray Charles is arguably the most influential interpreter of American popular song over the last 60 years.
In fact, Charles’ interpretation is so popular that it’s easy to overlook how radically he revamped Bates’ song—both lyrically and theologically.
In Charles’ version, the third verse come first, and the second and fourth verses are dropped completely. No “pilgrim feet” with “stern impassioned stress” beating “a thoroughfare for freedom…across the wilderness”—and over the dead bodies of anyone who got in their way. No “alabaster cities” gleaming “undimmed by human tears”. Black America has never lived a life undimmed by human tears.
Instead, as signaled by the beat of the snare drum and the sounding of the trumpets, Ray starts by singing the praises of the soldiers (“…heroes proved in liberating strife; who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life”) who fought for freedom. If, as you hear him sing, images of the US Colored Troops from the Civil War, or the Tuskegee Airmen from the still-segregated Armed Forces of World War II come to mind, well, you wouldn’t be wrong.
Then he goes back to Bates’ first verse; and again Charles signals to his audience that something new and different is coming. “When I was in school, you know, we used to sing it something like this.” Then comes the familiar images about the beauty of the land “O beautiful for spacious skies…amber waves of grain…purple mountain majesties…the fruited plain…..”, followed by a near-total reinterpretation (and rewording) of the chorus:
“Lookee here, I’m talking about America, sweet America, you know, God done shed his grace on thee,
He crowned thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
America, mmmm, I love you America, because, my God He done shed his grace on thee and you oughta love him for it ‘cuz
He crowned thy good (He told me he would!) with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”
In Bates’ version, the singer is imploring God to send His blessings down upon the nation (growing, prosperous, but straying from the path of her Yankee, Congregationalist ancestors).
In Ray Charles’ vision, this country was from the beginning blessed by God, and that blessing has never stopped. All the sins that followed—the 250 years of legalized slavery, the century of Jim Crow, the racism enduring into the 21st century (and you could go ahead and add your own list of America’s sins)—take place against the backdrop of that original and ongoing blessing.
Ray Charles preaches (and make no mistake, by the final chorus of this song that’s exactly what he’s doing) that, to the extent that you participate in or benefit from those social sins, you ought to thank God for not striking you dead already. You ought to lay down the heavy burden of continuing to try to justify or excuse those sins. You ought to thank God for His mercy in giving you another day to live, another chance to recognize the gifts already bestowed upon you, another chance to do right. God’s grace has been there all along and is still available to you. That’s “America the Beautiful”.
We all carry in our hearts and minds a vision of the country we love. I think I know what Ray Charles is saying in this song, but I could well be wrong. And I’m sure there are things I’ve missed that some of you will have heard.
It’s even possible that this whole post is a waste of time and that, as at least one condescending pedant has argued, all that’s happening here is Ray Charles, through no fault of his own, did not have a proper education on the use of the subjunctive, and therefore misinterpreted the language of (Wellesley College English Professor) Katherine Lee Bates.
It’s possible…but I doubt it. Ray Charles once said, “I never sing anything I don’t want to sing. Never sing anything I don’t mean.” In singing “America the Beautiful” the way he did, I think Ray Charles knew exactly what he was doing, and meant exactly what he said. It’s a different “America the Beautiful” than the one Katherine Lee Bates wrote. It’s a different understanding of God than the one Bates had. And we are all the richer for having access to both of them.