Saturday, July 4, 2015

Independence Day Blues

Been thinking about 4th of July, Independence Day, 1776, the Declaration of Independence, and later the Constitution. And it occurred to me that nothing so expresses our time, right now, than the inimitable rendition of America the Beautiful as sung by Ray Charles. Here it is. Take 4 minutes and listen to it.

That version always manages to bring me to tears. Why it does is at issue here. And I think it has to do--aside from the greatness of the song itself-- with that ache in Ray Charles' voice. There is a lifetime in that voice, a lifetime of joy and pain and deprivation, and it runs as a counterpoint to Irving Berlin's optimistic lyrics. Just as the experience of African Americans runs as a counterpoint to the optimism and success so often hailed on Independence Day. The words of the Declaration of Independence are inspiring, yes. But at the same time as those words were penned, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that paean to freedom, held slaves on his Virginia plantation, one of them his concubine. The freedom from tyranny demanded by that Declaration is mocked by the slavery that ran parallel to it and supported it and undermined it. And the singing of Ray Charles expresses that, consciously or not.
        So while Charles is singing of "brotherhood," we know that the brotherhood supposedly crowning America has never yet been fulfilled. For, as opposed to the "fatherhood" of the King from whom the American colonists were separating, brotherhood implies equality: equality of economic opportunity; equality of political opportunity; equality before the law...for all. And that equality has never been realized, first for those imported from Africa to be slaves, and counted as 3/5 of a person, and even today filling our jails in vast disproportion to their numbers; and second for all those who work for a living who have been progressively excluded from a share in the national wealth. That exclusion today has reached epic proportions and will, if not soon corrected, destroy democracy itself. May have already destroyed it.
       And while Charles is singing of "spacious skies" and "purple mountains majesties" and "amber waves of grain," we know that the counterpoint reality is daily becoming more unsustainable. Many of those mountains are having their tops blown off to get at the coal beneath them. Those skies are being filled with toxics from coal-fired plants and the exhausts of automobiles, and the atmosphere still higher is being filled with greenhouse gases that threaten the entire planet. And those fields are being poisoned by the toxic chemicals corporate farmers employ to protect their monocultural fields of waving grain.
       The way Ray Charles sings "America" suggests all that and more. So while the preferred anthem for 4th of July celebrations has always been the "Star-Spangled Banner," with its aggressive, militaristic imagery, my preference today, and always will be "America the Beautiful," as sung by Ray Charles. Rather than a triumphalist hymn to battle, it is an aspirational prayer to bounty and peace and harmony, that may still, if we are very very lucky, be fulfilled. Until then, the version sung by Ray Charles will have to do.
       Happy 4th everybody. It's my son's birthday.

Lawrence DiStasi

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