Relatively few states are blessed with official songs that merit much attention, let alone affection. For every "My Old Kentucky Home," so familiar to the general public as the anthem played before the Kentucky Derby each year, there's a "Utah, This Is The Place," which one can only assume was a leftover GPS instruction for Brigham Young. Tennessee chose the democratic route: It has 10 state songs including "The Tennessee Waltz," surely the only state anthem penned by Pee Wee King, the Gene Autry contemporary most closely associated with the Golden West Cowboys and the Grand Ole Opry.
Maryland's state song is famously an embarrassment. It was based on a poem written in 1861 by James Ryder Randall, a journalist and poet whose close friend was shot by Union troops marching through Baltimore, which provides the first clue that something might be amiss. The second clue is the first verse to "Maryland, My Maryland:" "The despot's heel is on thy shore," a reference to President Abraham Lincoln. And it just goes downhill from there with lyrics asking Marylanders to avenge the "patriotic gore" of that encounter in Charm City. Even the city's statue of Confederate generals recently judged inappropriate at its present location doesn't actively foment rebellion the way Mr. Randall's song does.
Now steps forward the General Assembly, which has once again mounted an effort to rewrite the state song, demoting the current version to "historic state song." The intention is good, but the alternative offered is the kind of underwhelming pablum one might expect from a song written by committee. (It is, in fact, an amalgam of Mr. Randall's less offensive lyrics and a poem written in 1894 by John T. White, a Frederick County educator). In removing all the pro-Confederate material, the song is, let's face it, boring. Historic, but boring.
Here's the entire second verse: "Sail on, sail on, O ship of state! Maryland, my Maryland. May we, thy children, make thee great. Maryland, my Maryland. May gratitude our hearts possess/And boldly we thy claims express, And bow in loving thankfulness. Maryland, my Maryland!"
Not horrible, just not very interesting. It could be any state. And that's the main problem with the alternative song. The original may be offensive and pro-secessionist, but at least the so-called "Marseillaise of the South" invoked strong emotions. We don't claim to be lyricists, but "sail on" invokes little more in us than a mediocre Lionel Richie song.
Here's an idea. First, let's stop singing whatever state song Maryland adopts to the music of "O Tannenbaum." That's just lazy — and a bit too much like Christmas. Perhaps an original composition would be better. Surely, it can't be any more boring than a traditional German holiday song about a fir tree. Let Florida ("Florida, My Florida"), Michigan ("Michigan, My Michigan") or Iowa ("The Song of Iowa," believe it or not) keep it.
Second, stick in some lyrics that 21st century Marylanders can really get behind. How, for instance, can there by an official state song without a single reference to the Chesapeake Bay, the state's greatest natural resource? Here's a few more features that are pretty cool: Best crab cakes in the nation, birthplace of Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, Billie Holiday and Harriet Tubman (which practically makes us Black History Month all by ourselves), and convenient to the nation's capital (a little economic development push couldn't hurt). Want to draw in the kids? Mention the Super Bowl and World Series titles, or celebrities like actor Josh Charles or NBA star Carmelo Anthony that hail from here. Or what about Joan Jett? She could sing it.
Yes, we jest, but none of that would be weirder or more inappropriate than what we have now.
On the plus side, we may have a terrible state song, but it's gotten pretty famous for being inappropriate for most of a century and a half. We can take our time replacing it with something worthy rather than cling to yet more thoughts from the 19th century which weren't exactly peak years for women and minorities, social justice, environmental protection or a lot of other stuff Marylanders actually care about. Just give it the "Preakness test." If singing the state song causes the audience at Pimlico to get a bit misty-eyed prior to our leg of the Triple Crown, we'll know we've hit pay dirt. Otherwise, let's keep working on this one.