July 05, 2004

Talkin' about America

For the sake of completeness -- and to give me another excuse to listen to Ray Charles' stunning recording of America the Beautiful over and over again -- there's some direct evidence for Geoff's conjecture that Charles probably used crown as a preterite form; that is, as crowned with word-final cluster simplification.

In the part of the song right before Brother Ray invokes the choir (which you can listen to here), Charles sings:

I'm talkin' about America! Sweet America!
You know, God done shed His grace on thee,
He crowned thy good -- yes, he did! -- with* brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

The use of the subject pronoun He by itself shows that this line cannot be an example of the archaic prayer-expression use of a subjunctive main clause, and the interjected yes, he did! confirms that the main verb is indeed a preterite form.

Then, once the choir comes in, Charles sings:

America! I love you America!
You see, God done shed His grace on thee -- and you oughta love him for it!
'Cause He crowned thy good -- He told me He would! -- with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Again, note the use of the subject pronoun. The interjection in this case is in principle compatible with the "original" interpretation of the line (He told me He would, so I'm praying He will any time now!) but is more compatible with Charles' reinterpretation (He told me He would, and He did!).

Somewhat ironically, this very same evidence shows that Charles' use of crown as a preterite form may be irrelevant to Geoff's main point that Charles is also using shed as a preterite form (which he clearly did -- I'm certainly not disputing that**). Both times Charles sings these lines, the crown clause is not coordinated with the shed clause, and each has its own subject. There is thus no necessary grammatical connection between the two clauses and each verb is free to be in its own tense and mood. (Charles is probably aware of what the choir is singing, however, so the connection is still at least potentially relevant in exactly the way Geoff notes.)

What a great recording to listen to over and over again, even if only to listen for this grammatical evidence. Thanks for the excuse, Geoff.

* Actually, it's not clear to me that Charles sings "with" here, but that's beside the point. back

** Further evidence that Charles is using shed as a preterite form, by the way, is the and you oughta love him for it! interjection in the second clip cited above. back

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Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 5, 2004 03:32 PM