My America

On this 4th of July, 2013, I’m thinking of the Ray Charles song, “America the Beautiful”. Yes, I know that Charles didn’t write the original version. Yet Brother Ray so radically and dramatically reinterprets the entire foundation of the song as to make it a new and unarguably different work of art. It isn’t a blindly mono-colored “U-S-A!” patriotic vamp. A casual listening to Charles’ impassioned singing and gospel-infused music could tell you that. But dig just a little bit deeper into his version and you see the vision behind the reinterpretation. Through this new lens, you see the depth of Ray Charles’ love for and his eternal belief in America.

Healing America

Ray Charles Healing America

You see, Ray Charles believed passionately in the precepts of America:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The actions of America horrified him. And yet, while he always held America accountable for its sins, he refused to allow those transgressions to cloud or shake his belief in the possibility of redemption rooted in declared ideals of this country


He opens his song by singing the third verse of the original song:

“Oh beautiful, for heroes proved,

In liberating strife,

Who more than self, our country loved,

And mercy more than life,

America, America, may God thy gold refine,

Till all success be nobleness

And every gain divined.”

Before all else, he sings his praise for our soldiers who fought for freedom. On one level, this verse is a nod of respect to those who have given their lives for America. It acknowledges the character of our soldiers that we all hold dear; that of honor, courage, and sacrifice. To Ray, this verse is also a very real reference to the colored troops of the Civil War and all African-American soldiers who had fought and continued to fight for a country that was institutionally racist. By doing so, he simultaneously lauds the nobility inherit in fighting mainly for an ideal and laments that sometimes the nobility of the fight is the only reward (“Fight the good fight of faith…” Timothy 6:12). The verse continues with Charles imploring our nation to live out the true meaning of its creed:

“America, America, may God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness

And every gain divined.”

He refuses to back down from his belief in the Promise of America.


Then Charles sings verse one as the second verse.  By doing this, the lyrics are no longer a description of a physical location. Rather, they become a metaphor for the beauty that is this Promise:

“Oh, beautiful for spacious skies

For Amber waves of grain

For purple mountains majesty

Above the fruited plains.”

In this space that Ray creates, he turns the imagery of the Promise into something tangible. You not only can see the Promise, but you can feel it, touch it, even taste it. He makes the Promise of America real, and thus it becomes something that is possible for us all to achieve.


Then, and only then, does Charles go to the chorus. His chorus, however, has a completely different message than the original. In the original version, the chorus is asking for God’s blessing on the nation now:

“America, God shed His grace on Thee.

And crown thy good in brotherhood

From sea to shining sea.”


In Ray Charles’ interpretation, he shouts that America is already blessed and that the blessing continues

“America, God done shed His grace on Thee!

He crowned thy good –yes He did- in brotherhood

From sea to shining sea.”

Thus, all the sins of America (slavery, Jim Crow, genocide of Native Americans, internment of Japanese, etc) have taken place despite, even in spite of, that initial blessing. So, there is a bit of righteous indignation in his message (“You ought to thank God for withholding judgment of your sins, and thank Him again for giving you still another day to do right by those you oppress!”) Yet, in his final chorus, Ray transcends any malice by preaching the possibility of redemption:

“America, I love you, America, you see

My God he done shed his grace on thee.

And you oughta love him for it!

Cause he, he, he, he crowned thy good,

He told me he would, with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

Oh Lord, oh Lord, I thank you Lord!”

This is my America. A land not only where freedom can ring, but where honor, gratitude, forgiveness, community, and Love can thrive.