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Lawmakers again consider changing 'Maryland, My Maryland'

Does Maryland's state song need a makeover?

Maryland's state song has been called racist, divisive and embarrassing, and some lawmakers say it needs to go.

The General Assembly is again considering whether to trash or change the state song, a call to support the Confederacy set to a tune most people know as "O Christmas Tree."

The words to "Maryland, My Maryland" are drawn from an 1861 poem written by James Ryder Randall, who was distraught about a friend who was shot during a melee when Union troops marched through Baltimore en route to Washington.

Randall encourages Marylanders to "avenge the patriotic gore/that flecked the streets of Baltimore." The bloody calls to action continue for nine verses.

The words are "very divisive," said Del. Karen Young, a Democrat from Frederick who is among this year's champions of changing the state song.

Young's idea is to salvage one verse and combine it with part of a poem written by a Western Maryland schoolteacher in the late 1800s to create a new song. Others are sponsoring the bill that would establish a contest for an entirely new state song.

"Maryland, My Maryland" was adopted as the state song in 1939, and lawmakers have revisited the song eight times since then. "I'm hoping we won't see a ninth time," Young told fellow lawmakers during a hearing on her bill. "I'd like to put this debate to rest."

Supporters argue the song has merit for capturing a pivotal time in America's history, when Maryland struggled whether to identify with the North or the South leading up to the Civil War.

"It says a lot about Maryland's history," said Jay Barringer, Maryland's division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who lives in Eldersburg. "There are some remarkable heroes mentioned in the song. I think this is an ongoing purge to remove everything connected to anything Southern or Confederate."

Public opinion about government endorsement of Confederate symbols has shifted, especially after 21-year-old Dylann Roof fatally shot nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C., in June.

Most notably, the Confederate flag was taken down last summer from the grounds of South Carolina's capitol. Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration is recalling license plates with the Confederate battle flag. In Baltimore, a mayoral commission proposes to remove two monuments of Confederate-era leaders from public parks.

Mike Franch has followed the debates over Confederate monuments in his role as a board member of the Baltimore City Historical Society.

"The state song, the monuments are about what we want to do now, today, to present our city and our state to ourselves and to the world," he said. "It's not changing history. … It's changing what we choose to celebrate."

About five years ago, the historical society sponsored a contest to drum up ideas for a new state song. It had two categories: one for new lyrics to the existing tune and another for new lyrics and music.

Dianne Lyday, a retired Social Security Administration employee, quickly wrote a winning version of "Maryland, My Maryland" that pays homage to "generations planted here" and "immigrants who've joined their peers." It also extols the racing industry, seafood, farms, military forts, beaches and mountains.

Jared Denhard, a musician who teaches and plays in several bands, got out his banjo and wrote a new song titled simply, "Maryland." Like Lyday's version, Denhard's winning song mentions immigrants and slaves whose "spirits join as one, no longer silent in their graves."

He also evokes the state's beauty with the chorus: "And when I'm far away from you / I hear you softly call / Your Chesapeake in summertime / Your mountains in the fall / The lights of dear old Baltimore / The rough Atlantic sea / Maryland, oh Maryland / You're always home to me."

Baltimore resident Sean Tully has been on a mission this year to persuade lawmakers to work a reference to Marylander Harriet Tubman, the former slave and abolitionist, into the state song. During a hearing in Annapolis this month, he got lawmakers to sing along to his version of "Maryland, My Maryland" which includes the lines: "Remember Carroll's sacred trust / Remember Tubman, brave and just."

"Put her in the song and teach all Maryland history every time the song is sung," Tully said.

Del. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican, is hoping to capitalize on the creativity of Marylanders by requiring the state to hold a contest to find a new song written by a "modern Marylander."

West says there need to be new lyrics and a new tune, given that the current music has an "unfortunate holiday feel."

"The entire state song is an embarrassment," West said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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