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Maryland’s pro-Confederate state song is close to being ditched, after repeated tries

For 82 years, Marylanders have listened to a state song that is a bloody call to arms in support of the Confederacy. Now, the tune is likely to lose its honored status.

Maryland lawmakers are poised to vote to abolish “Maryland, My Maryland” from the laws of the state, taking the position that having no state song is better than having one that’s offensive and advocated for spurning “the Northern scum” and joining the proslavery Confederacy.

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“This has stained the pages of our law for too long,” said Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, one of the sponsors of legislation moving through the General Assembly that is expected to wipe out the state song altogether.

The song is set to a tune that many people know as “O Tannenbaum” or “O Christmas Tree.” It features lyrics drawn from an 1861 poem by James Ryder Randall, who was distraught about a friend who was shot during a melee when Union troops marched through Baltimore en route to Washington at the start of the Civil War.

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The poem’s opening line, “The despot’s heel is on thy shore,” is generally understood to be a reference to President Abraham Lincoln. Randall urges Marylanders to “avenge the patriotic gore/that flecked the streets of Baltimore.”

By the eighth verse, Randall suggests that being wounded for the cause — “better the fire upon thee roll” — is preferable to suffering “crucifixion of the soul.”

Critics of the song have, over the years, called the lyrics “racist-themed” and having “white supremacist overtones.”

Maryland, at that time, was a divided state with strong pro-secession sympathies. The state did not secede from the Union, in part because federal authorities put a halt to a special session of the legislature in the summer of 1861, arresting pro-Confederate lawmakers.

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There’s long been an interest in the General Assembly in altering or doing away with “Maryland, My Maryland” as the state song, but legislation has faltered multiple times since the 1970s.

Del. Pam Beidle sings new lyrics to "Maryland, My Maryland" with Glen Burnie Park Elementary students before testifying in favor of changing the lyrics to the state song in 2009.
Del. Pam Beidle sings new lyrics to "Maryland, My Maryland" with Glen Burnie Park Elementary students before testifying in favor of changing the lyrics to the state song in 2009. (By Joshua McKerrow, Staff)

Lawmakers in the past tripped over the details: Keep only the non-secessionist parts? Replace it with an existing song? Hold a contest for a new song? Relegate it to the status of “historic” state song?

This time, they took a direct approach, one that would simply eliminate the concept of a state song from the section of Maryland law that lists state symbols. (It designates more than 20 other symbols, from the state sport of jousting to the state dessert of Smith Island cake.)

The effort gained momentum after House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones declared last summer that the song had to go. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who is the first woman and person of color in her position, said the song is “extremely offensive.”

“People just hear the words, ‘Maryland, My Maryland.’ But if you look at the words, it’s not something you want to hail as the song for the state,” Jones said in declaring her support for the repeal.

The House of Delegates approved the state song repeal sponsored by Sample-Hughes on a 94-38 vote earlier this month, with mostly Democrats in favor of the repeal and mostly Republicans opposed.

As she presented her bill in a committee hearing, Sample-Hughes, an Eastern Shore Democrat, said the song was overdue to lose its status.

Sample-Hughes said she grew up singing the song as a member of the American Legion’s junior auxiliary. “Now, I have a greater appreciation for what the lyrics truly mean,” she said during the committee hearing. Symbols matter, she said, and are an indication of our beliefs.

A companion bill sponsored by Montgomery County Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Democrat, is advancing in the state Senate, with a final vote as early as Friday. Earlier in the week, a Senate committee took a unanimous, bipartisan vote for repeal.

As the song became an embarrassment in recent years, it has been less frequently sung in public.

For decades, its performance was a staple of nationally televised prerace ceremonies at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. Then, in 2017, the Maryland Jockey Club directed the U.S. Naval Academy’s Glee Club only to sing only the more benign third verse. Last year, the jockey club dispensed with it entirely.

The Mighty Sound of Maryland Marching Band stopped playing the song at University of Maryland Terrapins football games in 2017. And the university’s Memorial Chapel, whose bells once rang the song regularly, switched to playing the school’s alma mater in 1999.

When Republican Gov. Larry Hogan was sworn into his first term in 2015, a choral group from Bowie State University, a historically Black school, sang the song but omitted the pro-secession verses.

Some of the lyrics to “Maryland, My Maryland,” the current state song.
Some of the lyrics to “Maryland, My Maryland,” the current state song. (By Joshua McKerrow, Baltimore Su / Capital Gazette)

“Maryland, My Maryland” has its defenders.

None of the 38 delegates who voted against the repeal explained their votes on the House floor. But in an earlier committee voting session, some Republicans lamented that the song was falling victim to “cancel culture.”

“This is the P.C. culture creeping in,” said Del. Matt Morgan, a St. Mary’s County Republican, using an abbreviation for “politically correct.”

Del. Sue Krebs, a Carroll County Republican, suggested lawmakers had spent too much time over the years debating the merits of the song.

“We should start looking forward to finding solutions for problems versus keep looking in the past,” she said during the committee vote. “Figuring out what people said 50 years ago, 100 years ago, it really doesn’t matter … I don’t think anything is going to change for anyone when this song changes because we don’t use it anywhere anyway.”

A photo of James Randall, author of the words that became the lyrics of "Maryland, My Maryland," the state song.
A photo of James Randall, author of the words that became the lyrics of "Maryland, My Maryland," the state song. (By Joshua McKerrow / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

State song apologists have repeatedly testified against ditching the song.

Terry Klima of Perry Hall, commander of the Maryland Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, testified that he thinks the assertions that the song has racist connotations are false. He said Maryland residents suffered during the Civil War, so it’s understandable that some saw Lincoln as a “despot.”

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“How else would one describe the untold constitutional deprivations endured by Marylanders at the hands of an occupying military force?” he said.

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It’s unclear where Hogan stands on the fate of the state song. His office, when asked about the song, responded with a statement: “The governor will thoughtfully review any legislation that reaches his desk.”

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