Maryland’s first State Song Advisory Group issued a report this week recommending changes to the state’s official anthem, “Maryland, My Maryland,” which critics say is divisive for its celebration of the Confederacy.
The nine-verse tune has been designated as the official state song since 1939. It has been the subject of several unsuccessful retirement efforts over the past four decades.
With the advisory group’s recommendation and with national conversations shifting to the endurance of Confederate symbols and modern race relations, Frederick County state Delegate Karen Lewis Young said she hopes 2016 is the year the song will be changed.
Last summer, Lewis Young was drafting legislation to reconsider the song’s designation, a proposal she shared with Delegate Peter A. Hammen, chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee.
Lewis Young sits on the committee, which considers bills dealing with official state designations.
Hammen, who was approached by another lawmaker about the topic, asked the Maryland State archivist, Timothy D. Baker, to create an advisory group in July.
The group’s report, released Monday, agreed unanimously that the song “is not inclusive of all Marylanders — either when it was originally written or today — and does not reflect current attitudes or what is best about our state.”
Opposition to “Maryland, My Maryland,” started early — before the song even received its official state designation.
In 1935, a bill designating the song was passed by the Maryland General Assembly, but was vetoed by Gov. Harry W. Nice, who opposed the song’s “objectionable verses,” according to the advisory group’s report.
The song, set to the tune of “Lauriger Horatius (O Tannenbaum),” was written by James Ryder Randall, a native of Baltimore, in 1861, while he was living in Louisiana. The song was celebrated in the South but stirred controversy in Maryland, where Civil War sympathies were divided, according to the report.
When Nice lost re-election in 1939, Gov. Herbert R. O’Conor signed a second General Assembly bill into law.
Bills that would have overturned the designation were introduced by lawmakers in 1974, 1980, 1984, 2001, 2002 and 2009. None passed.
Several times, including in 2002 and 2009, lawmakers have proposed replacing “Maryland, My Maryland” with words from John T. White’s 1894 poem “My Maryland.”
White, who was born in Frederick County, wrote the poem as alternate lyrics to Randall’s song.
The advisory group created this year is the first formal body created to offer a recommendation to the General Assembly.
Advisory group report
The Advisory Group on the Maryland State Song was formed in July and included experts in Maryland history, music history, military history, cultural history and folklore. It met twice in October and electronically before submitting its report.
To begin the assessment of “Maryland, My Maryland,” Baker wrote that the advisory group first created criteria for measuring suitable state songs.
It concluded that an official state song should:
- celebrate Maryland and its citizens;
- be unique to Maryland;
- be historically significant;
- be inclusive of all Marylanders;
- be memorable, popular, singable and short.
After consideration, the group suggested six alternatives for lawmakers to consider.
The first is to retire all but the third verse of Randall’s song.
The second alternative suggests adopting the fourth verse of White’s poem to be sung in the current song’s place.
A third alternative would combine Randall’s third verse and White’s fourth verse, to create a two-verse tune.
A fourth suggestion would be to adopt a state song that would be played instrumentally only.
The group also noted that state has a unique claim to “The Star Spangled Banner” — written by Frederick’s Francis Scott Key about an event in Maryland — and could adopt the national anthem as a state song.
A final recommendation suggests retiring “Maryland, My Maryland” with no replacement for 10 years to see if a popular alternative emerges.
A change in 2016?
Lewis Young said she was pleased with the level of detail in the advisory group’s report.
“What’s really important is that before they made any recommendation, they created a set of criteria,” Lewis Young said of the advisory group’s work. “After establishing the criteria, they said the current song doesn’t meet the criteria except for the third verse.”
Lewis Young said she has heard from several constituents turned off by the name-calling and divisiveness of the current song. The lawmaker said she will work with fellow legislators to craft a bill to address the state song designation when the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 13.
“I just don’t think that’s appropriate for a state song. You want something that unites us and doesn’t divide us,” she said.
At first blush, she likes the committee’s recommendation to combine the works of White and Randall and would support that change in Annapolis.
“For those who wanted to keep the song, we’re keeping the verse. For those who wanted something that celebrates Maryland’s beauty and history, we’ve got a verse of the John T. White song,” she said. “I think this is a great compromise.”