Wednesday, Jan. 28
We’re a state in need of a song. Or so our legislators believe.
Virginia has a rich heritage, a source of great pride. But it is currently one of only two states that doesn’t have an official anthem. That bothers state legislators who are ready to repeat a mistake. They want a new state song that captures the vibe of the commonwealth. They think one’s needed to kick off state functions, greet foreign dignitaries and give Virginians a fond reminder of home.
Here’s a surprise: our tone-deaf representatives can’t seem to agree on a song. That’s an unintended, but fortunate, outcome.
The silly squabble over a state song remains tainted by the legislature’s embarrassing history with it. The previous state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” was written in 1878 featuring incontestably racist lyrics sung in the dialect of slaves. Offensive in its inception and inappropriate for decades, it was “retired” in 1997 after complaints from the state’s first African American governor.
Still, the Virginia Senate toed to preserve it as "state song emeritus." A committee was formed and a commission established to initiate a contest for a new state song. The lawmakers threw the choice to the public, saying the finalists would be sent to radio stations and posted online in hopes that Virginians would rally to their rightful tune.
Legislated music doesn’t work, even if it nods to public participation. The legislature’s state-song project imploded with lawsuits, accusations of bias and a very bad beat.
Now, Virginia lawmakers are off-key again. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) has introduced legislation naming “Our Great Virginia” as the official state song. The song is set to the music of “Oh, Shenandoah,” a familiar folk tune with an inspiring melody to some. Too bad the original lyrics aren’t about Virginia. They’re about heading west in a covered wagon “bound the way across the wide Missouri.”
No problem, just change the words. Enter James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., a Stonewall Jackson authority who’s been a professor at Virginia Tech for 50 years. Robertson commissioned a lyricist, a South Carolina native living in New York City with experience in corporate jingles – one of his most recent songs was for Hormel Foods – to make the song about Virginia. Through a mix of Internet research and conversations they converted “Oh, Shenandoah” into “Our Great Virginia.”
“It’s a beautiful song, something that can last for a long, long time,” says Speaker Howell, who is 71, and doesn’t understand that music is made from the harmony of intended words and melody.
The “Oh, Shenandoah” melody resonates with a number of legislators, mostly men of a certain age. Sen. Charles J. Colgan, 88, (D-Prince William) is one of them. Listen at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/local/wp/2015/01/09/singing-for-a-new-virginia-state-song/
to Colgan’s rendition in a sing-a-along that The Washington Post produced in 2007. You can also hear solos – bad karaoke – from then-Attorney General and former Gov. Bob McDonnell as well as lawmakers Creigh Deeds, Emmett Hanger, Thomas Norment Jr. and Stephen Martin.
There’s also support in the legislature for an old Carter family song, “Longing for Old Virginia,” which is actually about Virginia. The song is a reminder of Virginia’s most famous musical family and the state’s claim to being the birthplace of bluegrass music. Listen and watch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meHgLljI0gk
Yes, but what about New Virginia and the generations of Virginians who were born after The Waltons ruled television in the 1970s? Some pretty good music has been written this century. Just ask the iTunes and Pandora generations.
For boomers, Sen. Walter Stosch (R – Henrico-Hanover), who is 78, introduced a bill in support of “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” the “unofficial state song of Virginia” written by Steve Bassett and Richmond singer-songwriter Robbin Thompson. Known to the Virginia Beach crowd as “beach music,” it captures the feel of Virginia – the breeze – from the beach to the Blue Ridge. While the lyrics are Virginia, the beat is for the shag, the state dance of South Carolina. Bust a move at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LlEAxeMwlM
A good song is about how people feel, not what they did in the past. The Daily Press of Newport News suggests Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” a song that captures a state of mind shared throughout a diverse culture. Get your groove on by watching and listening here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6Sxv-sUYtM
Speaker Howell isn’t impressed. "That's not my genre" he told reporters. Perhaps it should be.
Hard for even Speaker Howell to ignore Chris Brown. Echo Nest, technology company that provides algorithms to well-known music sites, found that Virginians spend more time listening to Brown than anyone else. The music of the talented bad boy from Tappahannock actually reflects the taste of the culture – Speaker Howell's genres notwithstanding. Watch Brown’s “Yeah 3x” video on YouTube (160 million views) and help Howell understand. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mC2ixOAivA
Music is too personal, too meaningful to be marginalized by the tin ears of lawmakers who are out of touch and out of tune. They have shown that they are insensitive to the nuances of the culture, indifferent to the music of those they represent.
Music is the rhythm in our heartbeat, the harmony of the people and the gospel of our lives. You can’t legislate it, you can only feel it. Let Virginia’s melody come from our souls, not from our politicians. We’ll know the state song when we hear it.
More tunes for your Virginia playlist:
Bruce Hornsby's “The Way It Is.” The moving and melodic ‘80s hit from the Williamsburg songwriter is about inequality in Virginia. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlRQjzltaMQ
The Rolling Stones' “Sweet Virginia,” is a song of gratitude allowing someone to find contentment in life. It borrows from country music, a staple of Virginia’s heritage. The song is about a woman, not a state, and there’s an unfortunate four-letter word in the lyrics. Great harmonica riff, but legislators and mothers would never approve. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JS7QkXwiN_0
Train's “Meet Virginia”. A rock lament about a woman trying to escape her mundane world and achieve a better life. A metaphor for Virginia? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qJBN9VAFUU