Politically incorrect lyrics in our state songs change slower than the times.
Although most of us wouldn’t know it, all 50 states have their own songs—some official, some not. The tunes, lyrics and level of sophistication vary as much as the states themselves.
Some state songs, like Alabama’s, feature an almost embarrassing degree of reverence and self-sacrifice, while others, such as California’s, are mind-numbingly simplistic and read like a school kid’s English assignment. At least one state can’t seem to make up its mind: Tennessee has no fewer than six state songs, including the bluegrass favorite, “Rocky Top.” Connecticut took the easy path, claiming “Yankee Doodle” for its own, while Kansas picked “Home on the Range,” and Oklahoma—no surprise here—adopted Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma.”
Leaving behind the silly and the mundane, we come to another problem. With the passage of time, some longstanding state songs give offense, and none has created a bigger stir than the anthem of the Old Dominion. Once titled “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” and later modified to “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” it was written in 1878 by James A. Bland, a New York City–born African American graduate of Howard University who also wrote such popular minstrel show favorites as “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.”Lyrics such as “There’s where I labor’d so hard for old Massa” and “There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go” apparently seemed acceptable as late as 1940, when the song was made official. However, in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, measures were introduced in the state Legislature to either replace the song or at least modify its lyrics.“Mama” was suggested as a substitution for“massa,”and“dreamer”for“darkey.” The verse that originally read “Massa and Missis have long gone before me” would now read “Mama and Papa have,” etc.
On every occasion, the proposed changes were voted down. In 1997, the Legislature rejected the revised version but declared the original to be the Official Song Emeritus of the Commonwealth, thereby retiring it once and for all.
Until quite recently, Floridians had no problem whatsoever with their venerable state song, “Swanee River.” When Stephen Foster, who had never visited Florida, wrote it in 1851 (intentionally misspelling “Suwannee” because it fit the tune’s meter better) it was for the purpose of presenting it in minstrel shows usually featuring white performers singing in blackface. The idea of a minstrel show in this day and age is revolting, and yet, until 2008, the song was sung in appalling dialect:
All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb’rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home!
In describing an old slave’s “longing for de ol’ plantation,” and the “one little hut among de bushes,” the song paints a South that never existed and sanitizes slavery. Once one of the more popular songs of its time, nowadays the original version is an embarrassment to hear, and worse yet, to sing. Still, it has reportedly been played at the inaugural of every Florida governor except Charlie Crist’s in 2007. Although “dear ones” now replaces “darkeys,” and “childhood station” is sung instead of “ol’ plantation,”the song is nonetheless an antebellum relic, a musical reminder of “old slavery times.”
While some state songs have become socially unacceptable, only one actually promotes treason: “Maryland, My Maryland.” Sung to the tune of the old Christmas favorite, “O Tannenbaum,” the Maryland state song was originally composed as a poem by James Ryder Randall, a native of Baltimore, in the raw and bloody days of early 1861.
Randall received the inspiration for his famous poem when the 6th Massachusetts regiment marched through the city on April 19, on its way to Washington. It was just one week after the firing on Fort Sumter, and newly minted troops from various parts of the Union were moving south to safeguard the nation’s capital. At this early juncture, Maryland’s affiliation with the Union was far from secure, and Baltimore was particularly virulent in its support of the new Confederacy. Many saw the influx of Union troops as an invasion, and were determined to respond accordingly.
The soldiers shouldn’t have had to walk in the first place. There was a 10-block gap between railroad connections, and horsedrawn rail cars generally conveyed passengers from one station to the next. But the day before, the locals had seethed as troops from Pennsylvania made their way through town; they were better prepared for the troops from Massachusetts, mobbing the horse-drawn cars and forcing the soldiers to march through the streets. As the columns passed, the mob attacked them with stones, bricks and pistols. The soldiers responded with rifle fire. The police arrived belatedly and tried to establish order, but by this time the fracas had become a full-fledged riot. When the dust finally settled, a dozen locals and four soldiers lay dead, with dozens more wounded. One of the citizens shot—early accounts claimed killed— was Francis X.Ward, a close friend of James Ryder Randall.
Randall, living in Louisiana at the time, wrote “Maryland, My Maryland” in an effort to inspire his native state to secede. Within the week, it was published in the Sunday Delta, a New Orleans paper, and put to music shortly thereafter. In a short time, it gained tremendous popularity throughout the South. Confederate bands played it, and Robert E. Lee might well have ordered it sung as his Army of Northern Virginia marched into Frederick, Md., in September 1862. It has been referred to as “America’s most martial song”—and for good reason. The singularly angry and incendiary piece goes beyond mere patriotic sentiments—it is a rousing call to arms. Given the tenor of the times, this is not surprising.
There are, however, three startling facts that bear mentioning: “Maryland, My Maryland” is a song of Confederate defiance, written for a Union state, for which it became the state anthem. The state’s General Assembly didn’t adopt it as the state song until 1939—78 years after its composition and long after its message had either relevance or a claim to appropriateness.
At various places in the song’s nine verses, Lincoln is referred to as a “despot,” “tyrant”and“vandal.”The song begins with the line,“The despot’s heel is on thy shore,” and in a reference to the recent riot, the listener is exhorted to
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore…
The last verse is perhaps the most jarring:
I hear the distant thunder-hum,
The Old Line’s bugle, fife, and drum,
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb—
Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! she burns! she’ll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!
Within the last 40 years, there have been several attempts—all unsuccessful—to soften or eliminate the offending verses. In 2009, a class of fourth graders at Glen Burnie Park Elementary School in Anne Arundel County studied the words, found them“clearly not positive” and lobbied the state legislature to change them.
But not everyone supports the movement to bring the so-called“Marseillaise of the South” into the 21st century. Said Jane Durden, former president general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, “I hate it when parts of our history are pushed aside for political correctness. Sometimes change is not good.”
Apparently the Maryland General Assembly agreed; the measure died a-borning, and “Maryland, My Maryland”— rousing secessionist lyrics and all—remains in place as the state song.
Scrimshander and historian Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.