AS THE TRIBUTES of the past two weeks have reminded us, Ray Charles could make any song, in any genre, his own -- even the white-bread 19th-century hymn "America the Beautiful," one of Charles's most thorough, and beloved, reworkings of a standard.
But it hasn't been much noted, in our 30-plus years of listening to Charles's rendition of the song, how far beyond musical embellishment he went. He also altered the grammar, and with it the theology, of the anthem, transforming a prayer of supplication into an ecstatic -- yet somehow not arrogant -- celebration of gifts already bestowed.
In the original lyrics, written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1895 (and revised in 1904 and 1911), each verse ends with a prayer for America: "God shed his grace on thee," "God mend thine every flaw," "May God thy gold refine." Only the last of these pleas uses the word "may," but it's implied in all three; the subjunctive verbs, it's true, look the same as imperatives in English, but nobody would have read these choruses as orders to God.
Nowadays, apparently, we've lost our ear for the subjunctive. In a 2001 forum on our patriotic songs published in the online magazine Slate, Timothy Noah wrote that he found "something annoying, even vaguely sacrilegious," about the way Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" "bosses [God] around" with demands like "Stand beside her, and guide her." You might think that in a nation where most people say they're religious, such misreadings would be rare; anyone who says a little prayer now and then ought to know, if only subconsciously, that "Hallowed be thy name" and "Bless you!" are wishes -- "May thy name be revered," "May God bless you" -- not statements or commands.
In any case, when Ray messed around with the subjunctive, it wasn't because he didn't get it. His version of "America the Beautiful" (I'm listening to the 1972 recording) leads off, nontraditionally, with Bates's third verse -- "O beautiful for heroes proved/In liberating strife" -- and follows her script straight through: "America! America! May God thy gold refine/Till all success be nobleness and every gain divine." You can't get any more subjunctive than that.
As he ramps up the soulfulness, though, the mood, emotional and grammatical, shifts gears. Charles changes the verbs of the traditional first verse -- "God shed his grace on thee/and crown thy good with brotherhood" -- to the indicative mood, the one used for facts rather than wishes, and adds a running commentary of affirmation: "God done shed his grace on thee/He crowned thy good, yes he did, with brotherhood /From sea to shining sea." Instead of petitioning for blessings, these lyrics say America is already blessed.
In the hands of other musicians -- say, John Ashcroft's former quartet, the Singing Senators -- such a claim might sound arrogant, jingoistic, smug. But in Charles's version, the cascade of gospel-style gratitude ("You oughtta love Him for it," "I thank you Lord") utterly washes away any hint of triumphalism. It's a rapturous feat of revision, and maybe Charles did have some divine inspiration. Heaven knows he sang like an angel.
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HAMLET, DECISIVELY: Reader John Tobin e-mails to say that my recent allusion to "The lady doth protest too much" should have made it clear that the line comes from "Hamlet" but not from Hamlet. Right: It's his mum, Gertrude, who utters those timeless words. . .. Betty Sampas writes that in that same column, she was surprised to see "to the manner born," since two English professors assure her the quote is "to the manor born." Back to the books: "Though I am native here/And to the manner born, it is a custom/More honour'd in the breach than the observance," says Hamlet; that is, he's used to the drunken revelries of the royal court, but still disapproves of them. "The confusion is understandable because of Hamlet's princely birth," says Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Allusions. Among civilians, maybe, but English professors?
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DESPERATELY SHUNNING SPAM: The volume of evil e-mails disguised to look like you, dear readers, has finally reached the tipping point: If it doesn't look like personal mail, it won't be opened. So please use subject lines, and make them as specific as possible: Not "words" but "dry cleansers," not "notorious" but "famous vs. notorious." This won't guarantee a fast response, but it will help -- and at least your missive won't land in an unremarked grave.