Friday, June 18, 2004

Soul of the Nation / Nation of Soul

One of the things I really missed about the Reagan funeral was they did not use Ray Charles' version of "America the Beautiful". It wasn't just that Ray had performed the song at the 1984 Republican Convention and Reagan's second inauguration: it's a wonderful rendition that really encapsulates the best parts of Reagan's idyllic dream of the nation. Where else but America could a blind, poor, African-American son of a single mother in the deep south rise to become a heroin-addicted, President-entertaining pop icon? Well, at Reagan's inauguration there was an asinine sermon at the interment by Reagan's Bel Air pastor, a rich white immigrant from South Africa, who marveled that only in America could such a person rise to be the President's minister in the nation's second-richest zip code. Ray Charles would've been a better representative.

Ray was extremely self-sufficient. He never looked for excuses for his handicap: he packed his own bag, kept his own house, managed most aspects of his life for a long time, and pulled himself up by not just native talent, but as Clint Eastwood eulogized at his funeral today, an extremely devoted work ethic. (Not to be too crass here, but anyone who can self-inject dangerous illegal opiates for over 20 years without killing himself has to have some real skills.)

More than the usual Republican mythological line, Charles was an embodiment of the melting pot. His music ran from nearly traditional blues to nearly-muzaky schmaltz. When a personage can attract such diverse fellows at his funeral as celebrated country-western pothead Willie Nelson, the ex-Mayor of Carmel (Mr. Eastwood), Johnny Mathis, Glen Campbell, and, say, Fathead Newman (who did as sublime a rendition on the tenor sax of 'Precious Lord' as can ever, ever be played -- man I cried) -- that's America, man. OK, so it was a Hollywood crowd. The AME knows how to do a funeral. God was everywhere, and he was God, not the sainted departed. Little Stevie Wonder practially did a call to the alter while segueing from eulogy and organ diddles into a full-scale song in honor of the late great Ray. Christianity is so much of a better religion as practiced by those truly downtrodden and poor, at least once upon a time, than by those born to privilege.

And hell, Bill Clinton was at the funeral. I guess he knew how to pay a tribute better than any President dead or alive: show up, pay your respects in person. That's being a uniter, not a divider: Ray mixed it up and ran it out as a great melange.

I'm a casual fan of Ray Charles, and my tastes run to his weirdo 50s stuff ("What'd I Say" being the most famous of the lot -- Tell your momma, tell your paw), so I can't comment on his musical legacy. My guess is that it's "America the Beautiful" that will live as a performance, and "Georgia" as a song. I didn't know the man. But what a great funeral - heart and soul, head and shoulders above any other public funeral I've heard or watched this year. I cried, I laughed, I mourned we won't have any more Ray Charles songs even if I haven't caught up with the catalogue in the first place.

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