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Sing Out

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Here's a bit of Maryland trivia: It's the only state on the Union side during the Civil War with a pro-Confederate state song, "Maryland, My Maryland," written by a southern sympathizer in 1861. Its opening line is "The despot's heel is on thy shore." The despot in question is Abraham Lincoln. Fortunately for those of us who like the state but not the Lost Cause nostalgia, the melody is from an old German Christmas song, "O Tannenbaum," so we can pretend we're really singing about a tree with lights on it.

My fascination with "Maryland, My Maryland" led to deep research on state songs. No, I should issue a disclaimer. My research was a couple of hours on the Internet where, as undergraduate essays often demonstrate, truth is rarer than fiction. The results were fascinating.

Of the other states with divided Civil War loyalties, Missouri and Kentucky have songs that express nostalgia for old Dixie, but otherwise don't take sides. Tennessee follows a radically different approach. It has multiple-choice state songs, a total of six, one of them a nice little ditty about a guy whose best friend steals his girl.

Even ex-Confederate states don't usually have pro-Confederate anthems. Florida comes close with "Swanee River" (a.k.a. "Old Folks at Home"), an 1851 minstrel show song by a Pennsylvanian, Stephen Foster, written in phoney black dialect. I'd love to hear Florida's governor croon, "Sadly I roam/Still longing for de old plantation/And for de old folks at home." Among other former Confederate states, Georgia is musically apolitical and, in "Georgia on My Mind," blessed with one of a handful of state anthems that people might want to sing in public. I remember that happening with "Georgia" several years ago, although it was in a Nebraska cocktail lounge late on a Saturday night.

Few state songs are as straightforward as Maine's, entitled "State of Maine Song," or those of Oklahoma and seven other states whose song titles are the state's name. New Jersey's song comes close, but is unofficial because the governor, in an act of musical mercy, didn't sign the bill. It is "I'm from New Jersey" — which sounds like either a lousy pick-up line or a plea for help. The composer's name is Red Mascara, a scary concept although not unknown in my neighborhood. He also wrote a song praising Brooklyn, so go figure.

Most state songs have delusional moments. In January, for instance, it must be tough for frozen North Dakota lips to sing about the "fairest state from sea to sea." South Dakota only claims, more modestly, to be "blessed with bright sunshine."

A striking thing about state songs is not that they exaggerate but rather that they have some of the most imaginative rhymes in the English language. Examples: "New Castle" with "corn all in tassel"; "desert meets the hills" with "the place of a thousand thrills"; "spotted fawn and doe" with "loveliest place I know"; "ideals can be realized" with "a legacy we'll always prize"; and "new technology's here . . .growing faster each year." Loyal Californians choke with emotion upon hearing "dear to me" rhymed with "Yosemite."

This brief survey makes clear that America's state songs are in disrepair, and the situation calls for immediate action. We can take one of three paths. The first is my preference: Follow Tennessee's lead, deregulate state songs, and let people sing whatever they want. Or, better yet, not sing. The second is to modernize America's aging state song infrastructure and demand contemporary ones: "Yo, Maryland" has a nice ring to it and no pro-Confederate associations. The third approach is mandatory federal guidelines forcing state songs into compliance with our national anthem, thus rendering them unsingable by normal human beings. In most cases that would be an improvement, but if Congress tries that, we'd probably hear "the despot's heel" line again.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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