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How Ray Charles Got Over
by Seth Sandronsky
June 14, 2004

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Ray Charles, the superb African American musician who died on June 10, got over in more ways than one.

He appealed to Americans of all ages and backgrounds. For five decades, they enjoyed Charles’ music.

He expressed his people’s efforts to transcend the racial lines of America, a struggle recognized around the world. Credit should partly go to Charles for this global recognition.

Without being didactic, he created a unique sound and style against the backdrop of America’s inhumanity towards blacks. That is one half of the nation’s “original sin,” with the other half being the theft of the original occupants’ land and their removal.

Charles was a distinctive voice in a nation with African roots from colonial days. For the past 50 years, he helped to define the cultural fabric of America.

Case in point is Charles’ lyrics that have become part of the national lexicon. One of many examples is “Hit the road, Jack.”

In ways big and small, Charles’ music speaks to the process of liberation from oppression, blacks in particular but everybody in general. Crucially, a watershed mark in the former struggle was the Second American Revolution, better known as the U.S. Civil War.

On that note, Charles’ getting over was about more than boosting the bottom line for this or that record company or film studio. His originality and vitality flowed from the legacy of crossing over when slavery was the rule in the South.

When enslaved African Americans crossed over the Ohio River, they found freedom on the other side. Their descendants in those riverbank towns endured the pains of that unfinished U.S. revolution.

Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, dramatized some of that time period in Sula, a wonderful novel. In it, the water of the river brought life and death to some heirs of America’s class and racial history.

Crossover appeal is a buzz term coined to describe the white majority’s attraction to the art of racial minorities in America. Crossing over from subjugation in slavery to its opposite across the River Jordan of bible days is anything but rhetorical buzz.

That experience ran a red line through Charles’ songs based in black spirituals. On top of that, he sang about life in his country as major social changes unfolded during the Cold War era.

People who had formerly looked to the Hand of God for guidance were being drawn increasingly to the Invisible Hand, the supposed beacon of the free world in conflict with godless communism. With grace, Charles articulated this tension between the sacred and the secular.

Drawing on blacks’ freedom journey for centuries in America, he expressed what many people’s lived experience was in the last half of the 20th century as a bridge to what can and may turn out better in their lives. That yearning for a more just world is the lot of working people generally on the job under the stone cold gazes of their bosses.

Accordingly, Charles’ songs touched folks of all skin colors, striking a chord “come run or come shine.” Thank you, Ray Charles.

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Peace Action and co-editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at:

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