Maryland, My Maryland? Panel urges changes in state song

Maryland's pro-Confederate state song, which bashes 'northern scum,' may be in for some tinkering.

Maryland's rarely sung state song may be in for some tinkering. A state advisory group is calling for changes to "Maryland, My Maryland" because it takes the Confederate side in the Civil War and bashes "Northern scum."

Sung to the same tune as the Christmas carol "O Tannenbaum," the state anthem — performed mainly at the Preakness and some other official events — has irked or embarrassed many over the years because of its pro-Southern sentiments. This week, an eight-member panel of historians, musical scholars and a poet urged lawmakers to replace most or all of the lyrics, or even select an entirely different song.

"No one's looking to ban the [current] state song," said Timothy D. Baker, state archivist and chairman of the group. Instead, he explained, the group suggested coming up with some musical expression that would be "reflective of all Marylanders."

The proposal to change the state song follows debates in Maryland and elsewhere over removing Confederate flags, statues and other lingering symbols of the pro-slavery South in the wake of the shooting of black worshippers by a white man in Charleston, S.C.

The panel formed after Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, asked Baker in July to come up with ideas for replacing the state song. Del. Karen Lewis Young, a Frederick Democrat, has put in a bill to make the change.

The song was penned in 1861 by a Baltimore native, James Ryder Randall, in reaction to the riots in Baltimore when Union troops passing through the city were attacked by a pro-Confederate crowd. It begins by decrying "the despot's heel" being planted on Maryland's shore and calls for avenging "the patriotic gore" of those killed by the federal troops.

"That song has always been objectionable," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., a longtime civil rights advocate and former chairman of the Baltimore NAACP. "I think America now is at last opening their eyes and ears to what we've had to put up with for a while."

It was officially designated the state song in 1939. But few know all the words, because only one or two of its nine verses tend to get sung.

"Nobody has sung the entire song for generations," Baker said. "Nobody knows what the verses are."

Previous attempts to get the legislature to change or replace the state song have failed. This move also could face resistance. One likely opponent is Gov. Larry Hogan, who despite having supported removing the Confederate flag from state license plates has objected to altering the state flag and song. Hogan, a Republican, called it "political correctness run amok."

A spokesman said Thursday Hogan's views have not changed.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, is open to changing the song, according to his chief of staff, Alexandra Hughes, as long as the objectionable verses can be replaced with "historically accurate language."

The panel suggested several alternatives. Under one, all but the third verse of the original lyrics would be swapped out for an 1894 poem, also titled "Maryland, My Maryland," by John T. White. The new words could still be sung to the current tune.

Another option would be to adopt another song altogether, including possibly "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"You know, Maryland really has a legitimate claim to the national anthem," Baker said. "It was [about] an event that happened in our state, written by a Marylander."

twheeler@baltsun.com

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