Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ray Charles and Siddhartha on Rivers

I would say the recording of Ol Man River by Ray Charles is one of my all-time favorite, most-listened to songs. I first heard it on a 45 that my parents brought back from one of their trips. Then, recently, I discovered it is available on youtube [] and I converted it to an MP3 []. Now that it's on my ipod and computer I listen to it somewhat obsessively.

The song starts out with a long intro, about 90 seconds of the song's total five minutes and thirty seconds. The intro, especially to my 2010 sensibilities, sounds very old-timey, and very white. It's not what you expect from a Ray Charles recording - a dramatic gospel chorus, haunting strings, obviously orchestrated timing. But then...

Ray comes in with drums, piano, guitar, and bass - a standard jazz line-up. Then slowly, the strings creep back in, laying down some gentle pads. On the second A section, the chorus comes back in, echoing words, and singing out long tones. The strings start to play more complex lines, eventually leading into the bridge with a beautiful ascending line.

The arrangement of this song is good, and certainly lends itself to a meaningful analysis. It's all about contrast and juxtaposition. The oppositions between jazz and gospel, black and white, new and traditional.

But to see how the recording goes deeper than that, listen to the real genius in this version: the soulful, heart-wrenching way that Ray sings it. His voice emerges from the wake of the white gospel intro, a lone black man filling up an empty space after the choir has finished and before the bass hits the first down-beat. And then, starting from a low gentle lullaby he soars over everything else, culminating in what is one of the most soulful moments in all of music at about 4:55, on the words "but that ol man river" which really come out as "but that ol-ol-ol-ol man-uh-an-uh rivuh, now". I mean that moment has literally brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.

The thing is Ray isn't just singing it this way to sound good. He's saying the words, and then he's saying something.

The Ol Man River in the song is a personification of the Mississippi, a river that doesn't plant potatoes, cotton, or say a word - it just keeps on rolling along. But Ray, rather than personifying a river in his rendition, does the opposite. That is, he riverifies himself. He rises out of the muddy water, full of the wisdom and soul of an ancient and perfectly slow river, and brings all of that emotion and knowledge into one of the best versions of one of the best American songs ever written. [The music is by Jerome Kern and the lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, 1927.]

At the end of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, it is the river who becomes the teacher that Siddhartha has spent his life seeking. Sitting on the banks alongside the ferryman Vasudeva, Siddhartha hears and absorbs the teachings of the flowing water. Hesse writes that "the river's vocie was sorrowful. It sang with yearning and sadness." Now, re-reading this passage, it seems so clear that if we could listen to rivers in the way that Siddhartha and Vasudeva could, rivers would sound like the voice of Ray Charles, singing with yearning and sadness.

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