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House of Delegates Speaker Jones: Civil War-themed state song, ‘Maryland, My Maryland,’ needs to go

Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones is pushing to repeal the state song, which many Marylanders do not realize is a bloody call to arms for secession from the Union. The speaker is shown in a 2019 photo in Annapolis.
Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones is pushing to repeal the state song, which many Marylanders do not realize is a bloody call to arms for secession from the Union. The speaker is shown in a 2019 photo in Annapolis. (Kim Hairston / The Baltimore Sun)

First, Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones got a plaque removed from the State House that celebrated both sides of the Civil War.

Now she’s got her eyes on the state song, which few Marylanders realize is a bloody call to arms in favor of secession from the United States.

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“It’s extremely offensive” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who is the first woman and person of color to lead a chamber in the General Assembly. “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.”

“Maryland, My Maryland” is set to the tune that most people know as “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.

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

The state adopted the nine-verse song as Maryland’s state song in 1939.

Since then, lawmakers have attempted to update, repeal or replace it at least 10 times, with many seeing it as racist and divisive.

Some have suggested keeping the tune and only the less-offensive of Randall’s lyrics, combined with other poetry. Others have suggested new lyrics to the old tune, while another proposal called for a contest to pick a new song. Some have tried to relegate “Maryland, My Maryland” to a lesser status of “historical” state song, instead of being the “official” state song.

The state song efforts have gotten the most traction in the state Senate, which has passed bills twice in recent years. But bills stalled in the House of Delegates.

Both chambers have new leadership, with Jones succeeding the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch following his death in April 2019. Senate President Bill Ferguson ascended to his position in January after President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. stepped down from the leadership role.

Ferguson said he’s on board with the speaker’s proposal to do away with the state song.

“The Senate passed legislation to replace the state song in 2016 and 2018, and I support that effort today,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, said late Tuesday: “Should the legislature change its mind and successfully pass this bill, the governor will carefully review the legislation.”

The General Assembly’s next session is scheduled to begin in January.

Monuments and symbols associated with the Confederacy, the Civil War and slave-owning figures are getting renewed scrutiny across the country, as the nation engages in a reckoning over structural racism in American society.

At Jones’ behest, a group that oversees the grounds of the historic State House in Annapolis agreed last week to remove a Civil War centennial plaque that honored Union and Confederate soldiers.

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Monuments last got a serious review in Maryland in 2017, when crews removed four Confederate-linked monuments in Baltimore and then a statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney from the State House grounds. Taney authored the Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and said Black Americans could not be citizens. Those removals came on the heels of the deadly Unite the Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Jones said she’d considered the issue of the flawed state song before, but chose now to use her relatively new leadership role to push for change.

“I realize that I’m in a historic position, a woman and an African American, and there’s no sense of being in a position if you’re not going to convey what others who do not have a voice feel,” she said. “I can be a voice for others.”

The Washington Post first reported Jones’ position Tuesday.

State Sen. Cheryl Kagan said she once thought the argument over the state song was “silly and symbolic,” but she has come to realize it is an important issue.

”Symbolism is important, especially now. I think it’s time to finally get rid of our offensive state song,” said Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored legislation in the past to cut ties with the song.

Now, with a change in legislative leadership and a shifting attitude among state residents toward Confederate symbols, there may be a chance, she said.

”When Confederate flags are being banned and statues are being toppled, it’s time to get rid of a song that calls Abraham Lincoln a tyrant and a despot,” she said.

Kagan said she would prefer a multistep plan to first abolish the song and then commission a new one with the help of state musicians, historians and archivists. But she also would support renaming or recategorizing the song as a historical song so that it no longer represents the state.

”It’s also OK if we don’t have a state song any more,” she said. “Somehow, the state will survive.”

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