As America celebrates its founding this week, numerous patriotic-themed songs will ring through the air, accompanying fireworks shows and being played by marching bands in local parades. Many anthems fail to reflect the country's diversity and "melting pot" reputation, but modern reinterpretations of these songs have breathed new life into them. Marvin Gaye's famous 1983 performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" serves as a classic example of a re-imagined anthem, but another standout remains Ray Charles' deeply moving reading of "America the Beautiful."
While it seems like Charles' rendition has always been a Fourth of July staple, his version actually dates from 1972. The original "America the Beautiful," however, dates from 1882, when church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward composed Materna, for the hymn O Mother dear, Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Wellesley College English professor Katharine Lee Bates wrote the poem "Pikes Peak," first published in the Fourth of July edition of the church periodical The Congregationalist in 1895. Due to its instant popularity, Bates revised the poem, retitled it "America," and sought out composers to set the poem to music. Ward's tune was selected as most appropriate, and the two first appeared together in 1910 under the new title "America the Beautiful." Unfortunately Ward died in 1903, thus he never saw his composition achieve massive popularity.
In 1972, Charles' gospel-infused version first surfaced on his album A Message from the People. He daringly changed the order of verses, beginning with the third verse, then performing the original first verse. Since its initial release, Charles' rendition has been played at numerous sports and entertainment events, and has become deeply ingrained in the American musical canon. Arranged by frequent collaborator Quincy Jones, the song benefits from a much slower tempo and Charles' astoundingly emotional vocals. According to his website, Charles removed and rearranged some verses to emphasize the country's beauty and the soldiers' bravery. "Then I put a little country church backbeat on it and turned it my way," he said.
Indeed, Charles' performs "America the Beautiful" his way, stressing the country's multicultural roots. Country, blues, gospel--they are all present in his version. When he hits those high notes on the lines "America, sweet America/ You know, God done shed his grace on thee," his obvious joy sends shivers down the spine. Toward the end, he reaches the emotional climax, seemingly ad-libbing extra words: "My God he done shed his grace on thee/ And you oughta love him for it." The strings swell, the background singers forcefully join his strident voice--it is a legendary performance, and sealed Charles' status as one of America's most respected artists.
Interestingly, A Message for the People experienced relatively modest success, peaking at number 22 on the R&B charts and 52 on the Billboard 200. His unique interpretation of the unofficial American anthem endured long after the album, and Charles performed the song innumerable times during his life. He even rerecorded subsequent versions, the last being a duet with Alicia Keys on the posthumous release Genius and Friends. His 1972 "America the Beautiful" best reflects what Charles was about--fusing seemingly disparate musical genres into something uniquely American and Ray Charles.
Whether or not you are American, spend July 4 listening to an American original and his eternally uplifting theme.