A bill that advanced Wednesday in the state Senate would not consign “Maryland, My Maryland” to the playlist of history but it does seek to relegate the official state song to B-side status.
Senators narrowly gave preliminary approval to legislation that would re-designate the pro-Confederate anthem as the “historical” state song — putting some distance between modern Maryland and 157-year-old lyrics that refer to Unionists as “Northern scum” and label President Abraham Lincoln a “despot.”
The action came after some Republican senators criticized the move as hollow and mounted a defense of a song many critics see as a racist relic. They say one can separate the inspirational verse from outdated political motivations.
Sen. Cheryl Kagan, the bill’s sponsor, defended the measure as a compromise crafted by the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which has the unenviable task of handling bills dealing with state symbols.
The Montgomery County Democrat’s original bill would have created a selection panel to hold a competition for a replacement for “Maryland, My Maryland,” penned by Southern sympathizer James Ryder Randall in 1861. He wrote the song after what is known as Baltimore’s Pratt Street Riot brought the first bloodshed of the Civil War as rebel sympathizers attacked Union soldiers bound for Washington.
The song, set to the tune of “O Tannenbaum,” exhorts Marylanders to take up the Southern cause and “avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore.”
Kagan’s bill was one of three proposed in the Senate to scrap all or some of the 1861 lyrics, which the General Assembly adopted as official in 1939 — the year the film “Gone With the Wind” was released and romanticization of the Old South was at its peak. Two measures that proposed altered lyrics set to the same tune failed in committee.
Kagan’s bill survived, but only after it was limited to demoting the song from “official” to “historical.”
Senate Minority Leader J. B. Jennings derided the measure as “a participation trophy bill” and a “waste of time.”
Jennings, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, noted the recent trend of dismantling Confederate statues and warned that the state flag could be next on the list for abolition.
“Where does it end?” the Republican said.
What would the choir sing at the Preakness? Jennings asked.
Whatever they want, Kagan answered. She pointed out the bill doesn’t ban the song and that the race’s organizers can decide what is sung.
Sen. Robert G. Cassilly mounted a more affirmative defense of the lyrics. While the Harford County Republican distanced himself from the song’s pro-Confederate sympathies, he likened the reclassification of the song to “book-burning” and praised its poetic homage to Maryland’s military glories.
“It’s still a very valid call to arms and a motivational song,” he said.
“Others of us would see it as divisive, dated and racist,” she said. “It should not be celebrated any more.”
Senators voted down a motion to kill the bill 25-19. Jennings’ amendment to erase the bill’s preamble, which says the song’s words are “controversial, inappropriate, and do not represent the ideals and values of Marylanders today,” lost 25-21.
Despite the close vote in preliminary tests, Kagan expressed confidence the bill would prevail on its final vote.
“We had the votes on the amendment. We’ll have the votes on the floor for final passage,” she said.
The measure’s prospects in the House are uncertain. No comparable measure has been introduced in that chamber. Kagan said she has not yet discussed her bill with House members.
“I think there’s consensus — at least among Democratic legislators — that it’s time,” she said.