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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 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.massachusetts54thInstead, 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 'cuzHe 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 followedthe 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 Americas 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. Thats 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.

About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 



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Thank you. To see this again is very evocative. I last heard this sung at the Mass at teh Cathedral that began the "Fortnight..." in our diocese. Besides its liturgical misapplication and insentitivity that our Ordinary had railed about last year with inappropriate hymns (inappropriate if the bishop doesn't choose them as he apparently did this one!), it was a loud and bland and grandiose musical quasi-endorsement of a vison of America that I did not shre with those present (We were a group witnessing for "Faithful Catholics Concerned" outside the Cathedral - not protesting the Mass- but the whole proposition of the "Foirtnight"). Ray Charles captures the passion and angst as well as the hope and common desire for integrity. A meditation.

If you like this black theology of "America the Beautiful," you will want to check out Neil Young with Crazy Horse's new album, Americana. Young reinterprets songs and ballads that we have been singing since kindergarten.

I confess I've always regretted his turning the present subjunctive into the past indicative. I wish he could have done a riff on that prayer.

In Ray Charles vision, this country was from the beginning blessed by God

?I generally like your posts Luke but that kind of thinking brought the US the manifest destiny and the continuing illegal occupation of Indian land contrary to treaties that were signed.The nation are the people, the state is just the hired help to organize the common good. IMHO, that is one of the problems with the enlightenment - the distinction between the nation and the state became blurred with the creation of the nation-state; the perfect embodiment of that is the United States.The United States is a creature of ideas from the enlightenment, not God.

Luke Hill: Thanks for providing the link to Geoffrey K. Pullum's essay of July 4, 2004. I enjoyed reading his analysis and commentary. However, I did not find it pedantic or condescending. As a result, I do not understand why you have characterized Pullum as a "condescending pedant." Your characterization of him probably says more about you than it does about him.

As a longtime fan of Ray Charles I LOVE this post! As an aside of possible interest, I have a recording of Mahalia Jackson from the 1950s or 1960s singing a very energetic and joyful version of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," and the one line sounds like its' been changed to "Go blow that horn BLACK Joshu-way, the battle is in MY hand." It spins the song in a completely different direction.And if there is any doubt about who Joshua was in this song or what Jackson meant by it, watch the clip shown here:

Thanks to all the commenters. A couple of responses:@George D - I think we mostly agree. My interpretation of Charles' version of "America the Beautiful" is that by omitting the 2nd verse he's saying (implicitly at least) that "manifest destiny" is a misunderstanding (at best) and misuse of God's blessing.@Thomas Farrell - You may be right that it says more about me than about Pullum*. Maybe it's more accurate simply to note that Pullum* is a linguist and so, as he himself points out, it's somewhat natural for him to notice and move towards a linguistic, as opposed to a theological, interpretation. (For someone with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Linguistic analysis is Pullum's hammer.) @Jean Raber - Wow! What a clip! Thank-you.*Edit (5:21 pm): spelling corrected (h/t Thomas Farrell)

You're welcome. I keep it in my "favorites" for when I feel I need a kick in the fanny.

I suppose that all of us appropriate a song like "America the Beautiful" in some way. Ray Charles' version has never really caught my attention before - I don't think I've heard it more than once or twice - so I've enjoyed Luke's reflection here and the various comments. But I expect - and I really hope this is the case - that most Americans wouldn't encounter the song primarily through Charles' take on it. It would be heartbreaking if that is how most Americans experience it nowadays - as consumers of popular, mass-distributed music. Its place in American culture - and the primary reason that Charles' take on it "works" - is that it is not passively consumed by Americans, but *sung*. I have sung it in church now and then over the years, as when the 4th of July happens to fall on a Sunday, but I first learned to sing it in school. I just polled the younger denizens of our household and was pleased and relieved to learn that they've learned it that way, too.I'd think that few Americans could name Bates as the lyricist, and even fewer know anything about her life. We all filter the song's meaning through our own history and experience. In noting this, I certainly don't mean to dismiss Charles' take on it, or Luke's speculation of what it may have meant to Charles. But I do think it's one of a relative handful of songs that Americans have learned, not by listening to or watching mass media, but by engaging with the local community. People who go to church learn other songs this way, too, but not too many of those transcend denominational lines (Amazing Grace is one that has transcended). America the Beautiful not only transcends denominational boundaries, but also the boundary that separates the church-going from the non-church-going. It's a sign of civic unity.

Luke Hill: No, it would be more accurate to say that you are a seriously under-educated fellow.By the way, the author's name is spelled "Pullum," not "Pullam." But I guess you will consider me to be pedantic for calling this to your attention.

@Thomas Farrell (7/11, 4:49 pm) Actually, no, I'm grateful to you for pointing it out. (If I can figure out how to correct it, I will.)

When ever I hear beautiful patriotic songs I filter out the patriotism and superimpose a God centered meaning[the consuming transcendent beauty of the music evokes God- or a desire for God- and so I change some words around or just reinterpret them.] I especially like the Star Spangled Banner-in that way. However I don't believe patriotic songs belong in religious rituals especially not at the Mass.

Like Thomas, I don't find Pullum pedantic, just scholarly and not inappropriately so. On the other hand, smart as he is, Pullum's reference to Charles's "mistake" and "misreading" is unfortunate and not altogether right. It would be better to think of Charles's "mistake" as Charles's "riff" and his "misreading" as his "revision" of Bates. As common as the dialect habits of African American in the US South are (Pullum is pretty good on this point), the "signifyin(g)" practices (repetition and revision) of African American artists and cultural producers are equally common, practices that carry the still stronger potential for Charles engaging in the very theological revamping Luke sees. Read Henry Louis Gates's book The Signifying Monkey if you need convincing.

Maurice --The improvisational characater of jazz itself is marked by repetitions and revisions, especially of melody and rhythm. Permutation, thy name is Ella Fitzgerald.

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