Sen. Jennie Forehand was attending a conference of Southern lawmakers some years ago when Maryland, My Maryland, the state song, began playing at a ceremony.
An impassioned Confederate-era poem set to the tune of O Tannenbaum, the song takes a particularly exclamatory turn at the end: "She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb - Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum! She breathes! She burns! She'll come! She'll come! Maryland! My Maryland!"
"People were laughing at it," said Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat, "They were asking, 'What in the world is this all about?'"
Forehand told the story yesterday as she tried to persuade lawmakers to change their tune about the state song. The Senate hearing was packed with Confederate re-enactors, amateur historians, teachers and a seventh-grader who said she loves the state song, which taught her the meaning of "despot."
For more than 50 years, lawmakers have periodically tried to dethrone Maryland, My Maryland, written in 1861 by James Ryder Randall and codified as the state song in 1939. Randall, 22 at the time, penned the lyrics after learning that his former college roommate had been killed in a Pratt Street riot between Confederate sympathizers and Union soldiers from Massachusetts, the history goes.
Many of those testifying yesterday said they were present seven years ago, the last time Forehand unsuccessfully tried to do away with Randall's words. She wants to replace them with a more pacifist version written in 1894 by John T. White, an Allegany County teacher.
"I feel like a victim's family who has to show up again and again for parole hearings," Linda Atwell, a history buff who lives in Frederick County, told the committee.
Hyattsville resident William F. Fronck said Forehand's motives were "an insidious spiritual virus called political correctness."
Fronck and others argued that the song is a history lesson that should not be wiped away. Some called attempts to sanitize the lyrics a "Stalinist" revision of past events.
"This song is our history," said self-described historian and author Daniel Toomey, who brought along an original copy of the Randall poem.
But opponents of the song said it misrepresents Maryland - "The Free State" - and unfairly portrays only one side of the Civil War.
"It's a bitter and abusive diatribe written to incite revenge," said William Moulden, a teacher who lives near Annapolis.
Respected state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse wants to see the song go. "While Randall deserves recognition as a Maryland poet, he was decidedly partisan and bitter, a strong advocate of slavery and secession," he wrote in a letter to Forehand.
It is not clear whether the committee that took up the controversy will vote to send it to the full Senate. Committee members asked no questions, but after one man called the song "sacred," Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the committee chairwoman, held up a list of Maryland symbols that had come and gone over the years.
"This is not the end of changes in Maryland," Conway said.
Even if Forehand's plan advances through the Senate and House committees, the leaders of those chambers don't want to see their members approve it.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said that if the Randall song opponents could find a suitable state song, instead of just "swapping out some lyrics," Forehand's effort might gain momentum. "But I do hope the people of this state know I am concentrating on things that matter in their lives - like the economy, for example - far more than the lyrics to a song," Busch said.
Forehand offered a suggestion in the spirit of the Great "State Sport" Compromise of 2004, when jousting maintained its state sport status while lacrosse, which was vying for the title, became the first "state team sport."
Why not make White's version the new state song, she offered, and retire Randall's version as state song emeritus?
revising the state song
First stanza of current state song
The despot's heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!
First stanza of proposed state song
We dedicate our song to thee,
Maryland, my Maryland,
The home of light and liberty,
Maryland, my Maryland.
We love thy streams and wooded hills,
Thy mountains with their gushing rills,
Thy scenes - our heart with rapture fills -
Maryland, my Maryland.