July 04, 2004

Ray Charles, America, and the subjunctive

Being an immigrant American citizen, I am of course even more likely than the average American to get misty-eyed on hearing the great patriotic songs that radio stations tend to find pretexts for playing on Independence Day. And naturally I thrill to the recording of Ray Charles doing his wonderful rendition of "America the Beautiful". Of course, being a grammarian, I also notice a interesting little indication of a misunderstanding of the lyrics caused by an unusually archaic construction that has a non-archaic alternative interpretation. For me, it doesn't detract from the aesthetic experience at all. But if you don't want to become aware of Ray's mistake, if you think it would stop you enjoying his performance of the song, you should stop here and not read on.

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I should mention that Ray Charles was here in Santa Cruz County just last summer. I watched him at the blues festival in Aptos Village Park. He was just a month shy of 73, the age at which he died. Yet it wasn't a question of seeing an old man trying to conjure up the days when he could do his songs (it can be a real disappointment to see one's idols too late). To my astonishment he was in his prime, at his peak. His show was scintillating. I have never seen such accomplished musicians gathered together at any rock or blues venue before; the members of the Ray Charles Orchestra were world class; there are few big bands of that caliber touring anywhere anymore. And center stage, Ray Charles had apparently spent the past fifteen years or so learning new skills. He had a synthesizer, on which he was an absolute expert. At one point his guitarist did a solo which I would have described as competent but not exactly brilliant, and -- as if reading my mind and agreeing with me -- suddenly Ray Charles flipped his synthesizer into a perfect imitation of the Fender Stratocaster guitar sound and did a second guitar solo, a much more accomplished one. I guess the men in his orchestra had to simply put up with that: if you're on stage with a true towering genius and natural showman, you're just not going to have much of the limelight shed on you. Ray Charles dominated the show, he bounced with energy, he loved what he was doing, he absolutely rocked.

I digress, of course; but it is an opportunity to endorse the not very controversial view that Ray Charles was one of the greatest figures in 20th century music. His death put a tear in my eye and an ache in my heart throughout the week of Reagan's extended funeral ceremonies. People must have thought I mourned the dead president, but my sadness was all for a man from the opposite corner of the country who managed to produce, in one career, the best records I have ever heard in at least three or four different musical genres. His taste was impeccable; his soulfulness was real; his artistry was beyond belief. You have to have played his music professionally, as I did in the 1960s, to realize how good he was.

So after all this, what's the slip in "America the Beautiful"? Well, after the spine-tinglingly effective bit where he calls out "I wish I had somebody to help me sing this" and a full choir obligingly comes in to join him, he starts elaborating in gospel style on the lines as the choir sings them. And as the choir does the line "God shed His grace on thee", Ray's out-of-time embellishment, in a deliberately down-home, non-standard variety of English, is: "God done shed His grace on thee."

Now, in the non-standard dialects that have it, this is an indicative past tense. To say My baby done gone is roughly equivalent to saying in Standard English My sweetheart has departed. The line Ray Charles calls out means, in those dialects, that God has at some time in the past shone His grace on America.

But that is not the right interpretation of the line. Addressed to America, it actually expresses a prayer that God should please shed His light on her. It's part of a pair of coordinated subjunctive main clauses. This is highly archaic; one only sees the same construction in a few fixed phrases still in use, like So be it ("Let it be thus"), Far be it from me to... ("May it be far from me to..."), etc.; see The Cambridge Grammar, p. 90. For example, Long live the Queen means "May it be the case that the Queen has a long life." Katherine Lee Bates' lyrics are using this kind of construction:

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

Why is there a possibility of reading the verb form shed as a preterite? Because of a small morphological point. There are about 24 verbs in English that have identical past participle, preterite, and plain form. Put and hit are examples. And shed is one of that class. So when you hear God shed His grace..., you do know it is not a present tense (that would be God sheds His grace...), but you cannot tell whether it is a preterite (the most likely analysis) or an archaic use of the plain form in some sort of subjunctive construction (e.g., in It is vital that God shed His grace on us).

The clues come later: when you hear on thee you know we are dealing with archaic language. And when you hear crown you have your crucial piece of evidence. The preterite of crown is crowned, so the line And crown thy good with brotherhood cannot be a preterite. Yet it's coordinated with God shed His grace on thee, so it should be the same tense and mood as that. The only solution is that both are uses of the plain form in a subjunctive main clause construction. The meaning of the lines in red above is "May it be the case that God sheds his grace on you [America], and may He crown your good with brotherhood."

It's reasonable enough that Ray Charles should have misunderstood that line. His dialect (English as learned by an extremely poor African American child born in Albany, Georgia and raised during the 1930s in the small town of Greenville in north Florida) would have no main clause subjunctives at all. Shed would be encountered as a plain form (in infinitival clauses), as a plain present (used when the subject is not 3rd singular), as a past participle, and as a preterite. The only possible analysis of the lines above is to take it as a preterite. And crown would not be crucial counterevidence for him. Recall that Ray Charles began to go blind at the age of five. He would not have read Katherine Lee Bates' lyrics; he would only have heard them sung, mostly by African Americans, since the South was strictly segregated, and certainly mostly by Southerners. And in the dialects of the South (especially African American vernacular dialects), final consonants are mostly or often dropped in clusters of consonants with the same voicing: land is pronounced lan'. So hearing crowned apparently pronounced as crown would be quite natural. Both shed and crown could therefore be taken as preterites.

Since the only two jobs at which I have ever earned my living are soul musician and linguist, I guess I am a natural to notice the point. National Public Radio had an educated white musicologist on to talk about Ray Charles' music, and he commented on the performance of "America the Beautiful", and specifically mentioned the added force of doing the embellishment on God shed His grace on thee in colloquial dialect, but he didn't notice the point I've made here, that it was a misreading of the line.

It doesn't matter, of course. Ray Charles was still one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century in any genre; I still deeply miss him; and his performance of "America the Beautiful" is still musically stunning, a performance to treasure every Independence Day, forever. Happy Fourth of July.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 4, 2004 06:45 PM