Change that tune

The Baltimore Sun

The fourth graders at Glen Burnie Park Elementary School had strong reactions the first time many of them heard the Maryland state song, a rousing Civil War era tune.

An Thai, a 10-year-old, said the song struck her as "too long and unpleasant."

Kewannie Edwards said he was confused. The song had harsh words for Abraham Lincoln, celebrated as one of the country's great presidents. "It called Abraham Lincoln a despot," said Edwards, 9. "It was mean."

So the students wrote to their local legislators, including Del. Pamela G. Beidle, who ultimately agreed with her young constituents and crafted legislation to get rid of the 70-year-old state song, "Maryland, My Maryland," and replace it with a shorter and tamer song.

On Wednesday afternoon, Glen Burnie Park's 57 fourth graders attended a House hearing on the bill before the Health and Government Operations Committee - a beginning step in the legislative process, Beidle explained to the students beforehand, along with instructions to "speak slowly and loudly." Four students testified on behalf of their classmates at the hearing, and they all sang the proposed kinder, gentler state song before a packed hearing room in the House Government Building in Annapolis.

"I think we need to get away from the old words, the words of division," Beidle said. "This is the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Lincoln. Should we be calling him a tyrant and a despot?"

Rahul Kohli, 10, told the committee that the current song was "clearly not positive" and "has too many old fashioned words."

For more than five decades, legislators have attempted periodically to rid the state of "Maryland, My Maryland," written in 1861 by James Ryder Randall and named the state song in 1939. Randall was 22 when he wrote the song after hearing that his former college roommate had been killed in a Baltimore riot between Confederate sympathizers and Union soldiers from Massachusetts. The state archivist has described Randall as "decidedly partisan and bitter, a strong advocate of slavery and secession."

Sen. Jennie Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat, has also introduced a bill similar to Beidle's that would replace Randall's Confederate-era poem set to the tune of "O Tannenbaum," with a poem of the same name written in 1894 by John T. White, an Allegany County teacher. Both Senate and House bills await committee feedback.

Linda Tuck, a library media specialist at Glen Burnie Park, has for many years introduced students to the state song. All Anne Arundel County fourth-graders study state history and civics in their social studies classes, and Tuck has incorporated those lessons into her weekly media class. She asks students to complete such tasks as critiquing the Anne Arundel government Web site and the state song.

At first, the students were confused by the song. They didn't understand words like "despot," or the Civil War era context behind the term "Northern Scum."

It was universally panned as "mean."

"I've done this for years," Tuck said. "And I've always said to my students, 'Do you want to do something about it?' And they always said, 'No.' But this year, the group said, 'Yes! We want to do something about it!' "

Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, almost dismissed the students' letters when they arrived in November. The District 32 lawmaker said she thought she would just have her intern send a form letter thanking the students for their interest, but informing them that the state song was not subject to change. That was until the intern, Spencer Dove, researched the song and discovered past attempts to do away with the song because of its controversial language.

The students burst into cheers upon learning Beidle, along with co-sponsor Del. Mary Ann Love, would take up their cause, said their teacher, Tuck.

"I'm hoping that it will encourage them to be responsible citizens," Tuck said.

The fourth-graders, though, missed the ubiquitous part of lawmaking: the political tussle. After testifying and singing, they boarded yellow school buses to make it back to school for dismissal.

That's when several opponents of the bill took to the podium and registered their distaste, calling any attempt to change the song an assault on the state's history.

"The state song well captures a tumultuous time in our country's history," said John Zebelean, a member of the John Eager Howard Chapter Sons of the American Revolution. "It demonstrates the strong feeling for liberty and individual rights that Marylanders held. No history should be changed simply because it may offend 21st-century sensibilities."

William Atwell, a Frederick County resident, and a member of the Sons of Confederacy, said, "I think the children today need to continue singing this song, not some flowery, meaningless, political-correctness song."

Beidle leveled with the students, explaining that the bill would need a "favorable" rating from committee members and 71 House votes. Then it would have to pass the Senate.

"Hopefully we'll have an ice cream party and celebrate," Beidle said.

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