For years, we have been calling on the Maryland General Assembly to retire the state song as an embarrassment that has been tolerated far too long. We were wrong. It’s really much worse than that. It’s a love letter to secessionists describing Abraham Lincoln as a “despot” and northerners as “scum.” In the context of the 1861 poem on which it is based, “Maryland, My Maryland” might offer insight into what white Southern sympathizers were thinking 159 years ago, but elevated to the position of anthem, it represents a wholly inappropriate endorsement of slavery and oppression. That it has been spared the ax this long is largely due to its relative obscurity and the lack of a compelling replacement. Who can recite a single stanza of this turkey? Anyone?
That’s why we’re asking Gov. Larry Hogan to call for an immediate moratorium on the performance of “Maryland, My Maryland” at all public events including its most high-profile moment, immediately prior to the running of the Preakness Stakes, which is set to take place on Saturday, Oct. 3 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Governor Hogan can’t remove its status as state song, but his voice matters and the track’s owners are already prepared. A spokesperson for the Maryland Jockey Club said this past week that officials “look forward to starting a new tradition for Preakness 145.” Such a willingness might even have something to do with the $375 million track bailout bill the legislature approved earlier this year. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones deserves credit for recently calling attention to this mortifying musical mistake, and her vow to give it the heave-ho in January likely seals its fate.
Still, we will hear calls from the usual quarters that Maryland would somehow be abandoning its history if it dared decide that a Civil War era poem set to the 19th century Christmas carol, “O Tannenbaum” (”Oh Christmas Tree”), is not forever held up as an example to future generations. Is the song a teachable moment? Schoolchildren learn about World War II by reading books, visiting museums or similar instruction, not by singing the words “Deutschland über alles.” “Maryland, My Maryland” wasn’t even adopted as state song until 1939. It was no effort to heal a divided border state, it was a thoughtless choice made at a time when the concerns of African Americans held little sway in Annapolis. And it deserves to be regarded, much like certain statues of that era, as a sop to white supremacists who nurse The Lost Cause view of the Confederacy.
Arguing that removing “Maryland, My Maryland” as state song is akin to book burning is like describing trash disposal as the rejection of historical record. No one is denying James Ryder Randall’s existence or his poem or the fact that 19th century Maryland had no shortage of Southern sympathy, we’re just choosing not to make it Maryland’s aural signature. And here’s the side benefit: Maryland has nothing to lose. Nobody earns a living singing this song. There will be no mass exodus of Randall-philes. Musicians can even recycle their sheet music for the next yuletide season where the tune can more appropriately be used to describe “how lovely are thy branches” instead of “Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum!”
Finally, we would acknowledge that Maryland has much more difficult issues to tackle in the area of race relations than to retire a song or replace a statue. That was true five years ago when Freddie Gray’s death launched a reexamination of police-community relations in Baltimore and spurred broader concerns about systemic racism, and today as the nation grapples with the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police and similar act of violence against African Americans. To ignore the atrocity of “Maryland, My Maryland” today in the middle of all this, particularly given how easy it is to fix, would make matters oh so much worse.
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.