As members of the Maryland General Assembly return to Annapolis for the 442nd session, they face many challenging tasks involving the future of K-12 public education, the COVID-19 pandemic and balancing a state budget beset by an economic downturn — just to name a few. Experts will be consulted, amendments drafted, midnight oil burned and opposing views debated, often heatedly. But once in a while, an issue presents itself that seems so serious and distressing yet the solution so apparent and easily accomplished that one wonders if lawmakers should not be slightly embarrassed by the ease of their task. Such is the case with “Maryland, My Maryland,” the state song whose time has come and gone and now seems to be in what might generously be described as thoroughly undeserved extra innings.
To suggest that the lyrics of the state song are racist, hateful, un-American and unrepresentative of the sort of place Maryland is, or at least aspires to be, in the 21st century is merely to state the obvious. Surely, you’ve heard about them by now. James Ryder Randall’s pro-Confederate ditty composed as a poem in 1861 and later sung to the melody popularized by “O, Tannenbaum” and finally adopted as the official state song in 1939. It describes Abraham Lincoln as a “despot” and calls upon Marylanders to repel the “Northern scum.” This might have gone over big 159 years ago when the attack on Union troops marching from President Street Station was fresh on the minds of pro-secessionists. It might even have been regarded as historic and notable 81 years ago (although one wonders if it wasn’t also a reaction of certain whites to the northward urban migration of African Americans). But in 2021, it’s outrageous to imagine that somewhere schoolchildren might be encouraged to sing, “The despot’s heel is on thy shore, Maryland! His torch is at thy temple door, Maryland! Avenge the patriotic gore [t]hat flecked the streets of Baltimore.” And that’s just the first stanza.
So please spare us the “cancel culture” nonsense or how this would be an example of Maryland neglecting or rewriting its past. We’re not advocating that the lyrics be stricken from the pages of history, we’re suggesting it shouldn’t be held in reverence and trotted out an important events like the fancy place settings during the holidays. Even the Maryland Jockey Club recognized that times had changed when organizers of the Preakness Stakes elected this year not to have it sung at the Triple Crown horse race for the first time since 1909. If the owners of a racetrack can recognize that this is morally repugnant shouldn’t everyone find this an easy call? Still on the fence? Take a look at the sixth verse: “Dear Mother! burst the tyrant’s chain, Maryland! Virginia should not call in vain, Maryland! She meets her sisters on the plain — ”Sic semper!” ‘tis the proud refrain.” Get it? There’s nothing subtle going on here: It’s a call to take up arms against the Union.
Lawmakers have waffled on this mostly because they sought to produce a substitute state song. That’s understandable. To a degree. Perhaps there are some among us who get a little misty when they hear the band strike up “O Christmas Tree.” But ending the current song’s infamous run and starting a new tradition do not have to be simultaneous events. Get the first done and the state can take its time with new lyrics or a new tune with new lyrics. Maryland hasn’t required a state song for most of its history. We’ll be fine if there’s an intermission now.
It is fitting that House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones is helping lead the repeal effort. As the first woman and first Black person to hold her position, she understands the power of example. In the past several years, too many bad examples have been set from the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the hands of police officers to the civil unrest the followed and President Donald Trump’s alliance with white supremacist groups and indifference to the economic plight of majority-Black cities like Baltimore. Some lines need to be drawn. Some statements of moral clarity made. Some bad traditions made right. Much of the nation’s reckoning on race over recent years has been difficult. This call happens to be easy: Deep-six the state song.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.