Monday, January 7, 2013

State Songs

State songs. Who cares about them? No one, and for good reason: most of them are awful - racist and tacky, full of purple prose and bad rhyme schemes talking about how great said state is, and set to unremarkable Victorian tunes. They'll only be sung at really important ceremonial occasions, and these happen infrequently enough that by the time state officials realize they have to sing the state song again it's too late to go to the legislature and try to get a new one. Fortunately, most people will live their entire lives without hearing their state song.

For all that they're terrible, though, state songs are one of the richest sources of nerdy history humor imaginable.
A great place to start is the state of Massachusetts, which has not only a state anthem (All Hail to Massachusetts), but an unofficial state song, a state folk song, a state ceremonial march, a state patriotic song, a state glee club song, a state polka, and a state ode. New Hampshire has two official state songs and eight honorary ones. New Mexico has an English, a Spanish, and a bi-lingual state song, as well as a state ballad (in English).

Then there's Virginia. "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" is the state song emeritus, no longer the official state song but notably not actually rescinded. It was written by prolific African-American minstrel James A. Bland in 1878 and adopted by the Virginia State Legislature in 1940.

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and corn and taters grow.
There's where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go.

There's where I labored so hard for old Massa,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn;
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow;
There's where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go.

Carry me back to old Virginny,
There let me live till I wither and decay.
Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wandered,
There's where this old darkey's life will pass away.

Massa and Missis have long since gone before me,
Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore.
There we'll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There's where we'll meet and we'll never part no more.

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow;
There's where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go.

"Carry Me Back" was retired by the Virginia Senate because it was deemed offensive to African-Americans. In 1998. They still haven't decided on a new state song.

Florida had a similar problem with its state song, "Old Folks At Home", also known as "Swanee River", by Stephen Foster. It wasn't until 2008 that the Florida state legislature adopted a version of the song's lyrics that removed the word "darkies" and the black dialect from the song.

Pre-2008 version
Way down upon de Swanee ribber
Far, far away,
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.

All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation
And for de old folks at home.

All de world am sad and dreary,
Ebry where I roam,
Oh! darkies how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home.

Kentucky's state song is one of the more famous ones, since there's a chance that people will actually hear it: it's sung every year before the globally-broadcasted Kentucky Derby. "My Old Kentucky Home" (originally titled "Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night!") is another Foster work, published by him in 1853 and adopted by the Kentucky General Assembly as the official state song on March 19, 1928. It's also about antebellum plantation life. Here's a Youtube link to a late 19th century wax cylinder recording of the original version.

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
'Tis summer, the darkies are gay;
The corn-top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy and bright;
By 'n' by Hard Times comes a-knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

In 1986, the only black member of the Kentucky General Assembly objected to the use of the word darkies, and shortly thereafter revised song lyrics that replaced the word darkies with "people" were adopted by the State General Assembly.

One state song that's particularly near and dear to my heart is the state song of Maryland, "Maryland, my Maryland!". Here's the 97th Regimental String band covering it:

 I quote from Teaching American History in Maryland: "In 1861, James Ryder Randall, a native of Maryland, was teaching in a Creole school in Louisiana during the early days of the Civil War. On April 19, 1861, Union troops marching through Baltimore to the President Street station were attacked by a crowd of men hurling bricks. The troops opened fire, killing several in the crowd. Outraged by the news that his friend, Francis Xavier Ward, was among the casualties, Randall articulated his Confederate sympathies as a nine-stanza poem entitled "Maryland, My Maryland." The poem was immediately popular throughout the south and was set to the traditional tune "Lauriger Horatius" ("O, Tannenbaum").

In 1939, "Maryland, My Maryland" was adopted as the State song. By 1970, newspaper articles began to appear urging that a new state song should be selected due to the inflammatory nature of Randall's lyrics. Since then, members of the Maryland Legislature have periodically introduced bills to change the state song, but such efforts continue to be defeated."

I may add that efforts to change the song have been defeated not so much because the Maryland General Assembly is still a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers, but because no one wants to vote in favor of legislation to pay someone to write a new song and then get stuck in a committee squabbling over song-writers and haggling over lyrics only to end up with a new state song that everyone still hates, except now your constituents and fellow lawmakers think bitter thoughts of you every time they have to hear the song.

So start humming "O Christmas Tree", give the lyrics a perusal (particularly the antipenultimate line of the last verse), and you'll perhaps understand why the general consensus is that while Maryland may not quite be the South, it's definitely not the North: the despot referenced in verse one is President Lincoln.

The despot's heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

Dear Mother! burst the tyrant's chain,
Virginia should not call in vain,
She meets her sisters on the plain-
"Sic semper!" 'tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
Arise in majesty again,
Maryland! My Maryland!

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! she'll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!

Perhaps - just perhaps - as a reaction to Maryland, the unofficial anthem of Michigan (apparently it's preferred to the unremarkable official song, "My Michigan") is "Michigan, My Michigan!" The original version is from 1862, penned after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Here are verses four through six (out of a total of ten):

When worn with watching traitor foes,
Michigan, my Michigan,
The welcome night brought sweet repose,
Michigan, my Michigan.
The soldier, weary from the fight,
Sleeps sound, nor fears the rebels’ might,
For "Michigan’s on guard tonight!"
Michigan, my Michigan.

Afar on Shiloh’s fatal plain,
Michigan, my Michigan,
Again behold thy heroes slain,
Michigan, my Michigan.
"Their strong arms crumble in the dust,
And their bright swords have gathered rust;
Their memory is our sacred trust,"
Michigan, my Michigan.

And often in the coming years,
Michigan, my Michigan,
Some widowed mother ‘ll dry her tears,
Michigan, my Michigan,
And turning with a thrill of pride,
Say to the children at her side,
At Antietam your father died,
For Michigan, our Michigan.

Unlike Maryland, Michigan's song was completely changed in 1886 to six verses about the state's beauty, history, and kind residents:

-- Land of my love, I sing of thee,
Michigan, my Michigan;
With lake-bound shore, I'm proud of thee,
Michigan, my Michigan.
The sweet winds whisper through thy pines,
The jewels glitter in thy mines,
And glory on thy chaplet shines—
Michigan, my Michigan.

and then in 1902 to four flowery verses ("How fair the bosom of thy lakes!") about the state's natural beauty.

A few state songs are neither terrible nor completely unknown: Connecticut's "Yankee Doodle", Louisiana's "You Are my Sunshine", and Kansas's "Home on the Range". Some of them are even quite commercially famous: Hoagy Carmichael penned "Georgia on My Mind", "Tennessee Waltz", "Missouri Waltz", and "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" (Indiana), and Oklahoma took the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical's titular song (I wonder if they have to pay royalties). Hawaii's state song "Hawai'i Pono'i", while almost certainly completely unknown, has the distinction of being penned by a former king (David Kalakaua of Hawai'i) and written in Hawaiian.

The state song of North Carolina, "The Old North State", is notable for being, like most of North Carolina, laid back, pretty chill, and a little self-effacing. Adopted by the General Assembly in 1927, it has a decent tune and mellow lyrics that very notably don't talk about how unimaginably beautiful, virilefertile, and kickass the state and its residents are. Verses three through five:

Plain and artless her sons, but whose doors open faster
At the knock of a stranger, or the tale of disaster.
How like the rudeness of the dear native mountains,
With rich ore in their bosoms and life in their fountains.

Hurrah! Hurrah! The Old North State forever!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The good Old North State!

And her daughters, the Queen or the forest resembling
So graceful, so constant, yet the gentlest breath trembling.
And true lightwood at heart, let the match be applied them,
How they kindle and flame! Oh! none know but who've tried them.

Hurrah! Hurrah! The Old North State forever!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The good Old North State!

Then let all those who love us, love the land that we live in,
As happy a region as on this side of heaven,
Where plenty and peace, love and joy smile before us,
Raise aloud, raise together the heart thrilling chorus.

Hurrah! Hurrah! The Old North State forever!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The good Old North State!

Naturally, the state song of the southern mountain of conceit that borders North Carolina's valley of humility is all about how friggin' awesome South Carolina is. Remarkably, though, the war they're singing about isn't the Civil War but the Revolutionary War: the Battle of Eutaw Springs was fought on September 8, 1781 and was the last major battle of the war to take place in the Carolinas. Under pressure from the South Carolina Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Assembly adopted "Carolina" in 1911:

Hold up the glories of thy dead;
Say how thy elder children bled,
And point to Eutaw's battle-bed,
Carolina! Carolina!

Since you're probably wondering, the state song of West Virginia has the usual prosy lyrics praising the state's (you guessed it) mountains. Like "Old Kentucky Home" the song is a melancholic meditation about how happy the singer's childhood in his home state was and how sad he is that he has to leave. Unlike "Old Kentucky Home", though, "The West Virginia Hills" wasn't written by Stephen Foster but a Mrs. Ellen King, and the tune is decidedly unremarkable.

Oh, the West Virginia hills! How majestic and how grand,
With their summits bathed in glory, like our Prince Immanuel's Land!
Is it any wonder then, that my heart with rapture thrills,
As I stand once more with loved ones On those West Virginia hills?

Oh, the hills, beautiful hills! How I love those West Virginia hills!
If o'er sea o'er land I roam, still I'll think of happy home,
And my friends among the West Virginia hills.

Oh, the West Virginia hills! Where my childhood hours were passed,
Where I often wandered lonely, and the future tried to cast;
Many are our visions bright, which the future ne'er fulfills;
But how sunny were my daydreams on those West Virginia hills!


Oh, the West Virginia hills! How unchang'd they seem to stand,
With their summits pointed skyward to the Great Almighty's Land!
Many changes I can see, which my heart with sadness fills;
But no changes can be noticed in those West Virginia hills.


Oh, the West Virginia hills! I must bid you now adieu.
In my home beyond the mountains I shall ever dream of you;
In the evening time of life, if my Father only wills,
I shall still behold the vision of those West Virginia hills.

And then there's the state song of California ("I Love You, California"; 1913), which is a pretty unremarkable tune, but has some totally awesome sheet music of a BEAR hugging the State of California.

As for the rump, they tend to be neither remarkably bad nor good, and we have nothing to add about the "State of Maine Song", "Here We Have Idaho", "Utah, This is the Place", and "Home Means Nevada", except that it could be worse.

As a closing thought I highly recommend learning your state song; they need all the love and attention they can get and being able to sing it is a great party trick - Marylanders especially. Bust verses one and nine out and you are set for the rest of the night.

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