Friday, October 08, 2010

Ray Charles, John Wayne, and America

Years ago -- at least five addresses and six computers ago -- my buddy Joe and I got the idea to write a book about the 100 greatest things in America. They could be places (Mount Rushmore, Key West) or events (the Kentucky Derby, the ringing of the bell on Wall Street). We'd take the giant advance that we would (obviously) get for the idea, and go around the country to see or do all these things. We really got into it -- we made up separate lists, argued about it over the phone, e-mailed revisions that took several hours to send (at least it seemed) on our dial-up connections.

Somewhere along the way the idea faded. I don't even have my list anymore. It's probably on a floppy disk in a landfill. But I remember we were certain about one thing: Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful" was one of the 100 greatest things in America.

We figured we'd end the book by going to see him somewhere on July 4 with Ray swaying and stomping his feet and fireworks going off. We couldn't imagine anything more American.

So on Thursday I went to a rally in North Charleston for Nikki Haley, the Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina. (As I mentioned the other day, I'm working on a profile of her and I'm interested in your ideas.) This rally had a sound system playing patriotic songs while everyone waited for Haley to arrive. Most of it was the same playlist I've heard at all of these things -- Toby Keith, Billy Ray Cyrus' "Some Gave All," stuff like that.

But then, out of nowhere, John Wayne started saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

I vaguely remembered hearing it before, as part of a track where he goes on to riff a little bit about what each line means. But I don't think they played that part at the rally. It was just John Wayne and the Pledge of Allegiance. It could not have been more American if he had popped out of an apple pie.

Ray Charles had a challenger.

And to hammer the point home, the very next thing that came up on the sound system was Ray's "America the Beautiful."

So maybe this is for we the people to decide, in the Saturday Night Live "Quien es mas macho?" tradition. (I couldn't find that SNL clip online... help out if you know where it is.)

Here's John (with the extra stuff after the pledge):



And here's Ray (from the Dick Cavett Show in the '70s):



My fellow Americans, we can be proud of either one. But you have to pick. Who you got? Or is there some other performance even more American than these? If there is, I'm not sure we can take it... but throw it out there anyway.

UPDATE: Joe comes back with a poll about the most quintessentially American recording. Go see what you think.

21 comments:

Lynne Stevenson said...

Back in the 1970s all of the American television stations used to sign off of the air every night to John Wayne's version of the National Anthem complete with videotaped scenes of eagles soaring, fields of grain, etc...
Ray Charles definitely has a place in Americana as well, but not nearly so much as "The Duke!" I believe that John Wayne served in the military during WW II, if I am not mistaken...Besides the Statute of Liberty in New York, John Wayne is the next most recognized symbol of America...

Anonymous said...

More somber, but "Taps" and 21 gun salute at Arlington strikes me as a very dignified, recognized and enduring symbol of our great nation.

Anonymous said...

Considering the fact that Marion (oops!..I mean DUKE!) was the even more closely closeted than his buddy Rock Hudson, while I'm not exactly a homophobe I'm leaning toward Ray on this one!
Anybody who thinks that Duke served in any branch of the military is sadly mistaken, like Reagan he opted out when given the opportunity. For whatever reason John Wayne kept his sexuality a secret until he died.

Anonymous said...

Is this nation still great?

Ben said...

I suppose this comment will out me as a bleeding liberal, but I've always had a lot of trouble with the Pledge of Allegiance because of the "under God" Dwight Eisenhower inserted into it. It ruins the meter of the thing, so it's artistically bad, and it also actively excludes those who don't believe in God, which is expressly against what a good handful of the founding fathers stood for and believed in. So I'm going to have to say I'll take America the Beautiful over the Pledge any day.

(I'd also disagree with Lynne Stevenson make the point that Ray Charles, a man who became wealthy and famous despite his childhood of poverty, blindness and racial discrimination is at least as good a symbol of Americana as a man who played tough in the movies but didn't serve his country.)

Rob said...

John Wayne and World War II - incorrect. He stayed home to make movies.

kyle said...

"Well, pilgrim, you obviously just do not understand what these two six shooters, this here Sharps rifle and Colorado's sawed off pickle barrel over there can do if we get riled up... I wouldn't try it if I were you... You may not like the results and end up planted like a load of summer daisies... heh, heh, heh...

Anonymous said...

"Fill your hands, you son of a ...." Yours truly, Rooster Cogburn.

Anonymous said...

"Fighting soldiers from the sky, these are men who jump and die..."

Anonymous said...

"The Quiet Man", one of Wayne's best, with Maureen O'Hara.

Anonymous said...

Whitney Houston singing the Nation Anthem at the 1990 Super Bowl. Breathless! I get goose bumps just thinking about it...

Just Bill said...

I have to go with Brother Ray (always a good choice) on this one. I do like Wayne's obviously heartfelt reading on the Pledge, but to be perfectly honest I prefer Red Skelton's reading on it; less gravitas, more humility and heart.

Anonymous said...

Ray - hands down.

ed said...

How bout Kate Smith "God Bless America"

Anonymous said...

John Wayne wasn't gay. The man was a pretty open womanizer, he was married three times, had 7 kids, the only people who say he was gay are either: gay and want Everyone to be like them, or B: have an unhealthy thing for the Duke that doesn't have much to do w/ the man's films.

There's as much proof that Brother Ray was gay or could see as an adult as there is that Wayne was gay. Get serious.

Anonymous said...

I believe that John Wayne served in the military during WW II, if I am not mistaken...

Nope! He made a lot of noise about joining John Ford's unit in the Navy, but never did; Republic got him declared ineligible for the draft. (John Ford took shrapnel fire at Midway while filming it for the Navy; Clark Gable flew five combat missions as a gunner* and Jimmy Stewart flew twenty as a pilot. The Duke stayed home and ratcheted up his paycheck as one of the few bankable stars making movies during the war.)

* He enlisted after Carole Lombard's death; her plane, of course, crashed while she was on tour selling war bonds. I believe Wayne was shooting Reap the Wild Wind that week.

Anonymous said...

Marion Mitchell "Duke" Morrison was born May 26th 1907 in Winterset Iowa died June 11th 1979 in Los Angeles adopting his stage name John Wayne in Hollywood and playing westerns as the epitomy of rugged masculinity American icon know for his distinct voice and highly conservative views. A Harris poll placed him 3rd alltime popular film star in Hollywood but the #1 alltime male star.
He was a star high school football player for Glendale High School and played in college at USC and starred in films from 1926-1976. He died of lung cancer in 1979 and was a chain smoker most of his life.

Wayne tried to enlist in WW2 but at 34 was 3-A and classified as too old but was an active conservative through his career and elected president of conservative actors anti-communist guild. He supported the Korean and Nam Wars.

His statements to Playboy in 1971 on race and politics still resonate today saying he "didnt believe whites took this land from the indians but won it ..." and "believed in white supremacy until blacks are educated to a point of responsibility ..."

Wayne married 3 times and divorced twice and made 175 movies in Hollywood. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom after his death.

Anonymous said...

Ray Charles Robinson was one of the greatest if not the greatest original entertainers ever mixing his gifted piano with his soul R&B country southern gospel blues roots skillful urban jazz raspy artistry.
Born September 23 1930 in Albany Georgia and died June 10th 1994 in Beverly Hills California, he grew up in tiny Greenville Florida north panhandle and became blind at age 7 with glaucoma due to soapy water left in his eyes.
He recorded over 500 songs and wrote many of them with his soulful piano artistry and Raylette singers.
The genius of Ray Charles made him a mega millionaire living legend marrying twice with 12 offspring having a penchant for drug use but always putting his fans foremost was inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame in 1986 and Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004.
Winning every music award ever, after his death Bush authorized him on a US postal stamp.
His jazzy 1962 Modern Sounds of Country and Western is still billed one of the top 10 albums ever recorded. His Willie Nelcon written Georgia On My Mind is officially the state song.

Jessica said...

What about Jimi playing the National Anthem?

Tom Dills said...

Tommy, your choices are tough to top, but I think you'd come close with the Boston Pops playing Stars & Stripes Forever on the 4th of July with fireworks. I couldn't find a decent video but I'm sure there must be one somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Whitney Houston "lip syncing" the Nation Anthem at the 1990 Super Bowl. Worthless! I shake my head just thinking about it...