Past time to change our state song: “Maryland, My Maryland”

MD Delegate Karen Lewis Young

MD Delegate Karen Lewis Young

Maryland state Delegate Karen Lewis Young (D-‐Frederick Co.) recently introduced legislation that would change the lyrics of the state’s official state song “Maryland, My Maryland.”

Similar legislation was introduced was proposed by former state Senator Jennie Forehand (D-­‐Montgomery Co.) in 2009, but failed to win passage. It is important that this legislation succeed this time.

Most Marylanders probably don’t know their official state song. Some may be vaguely aware of it when its (least offensive) third stanza is sung annually before the Preakness Stakes. In short, it may seem a trivial matter. A recent editorial in the Frederick News-­‐Post, while supporting changing the song, also made light of the issue, depicting the current song as some quaint relic of the past.

They’re wrong. There is nothing quaint about it.

“Maryland, My Maryland” is an unabashed call for the state to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy. Its status as our state song indicates an unfortunate and dangerous nostalgia for the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy that persists, not just in Maryland, but throughout the United States.

The lyrics to the song were written in 1861 by James Ryder Randall, a native Marylander then living in Georgia. Randall was writing in response to the Baltimore Riot that occurred on April 19, 1861. Union troops of the Sixth Massachusetts Militia, en route to defend Washington, D.C., had to march ten blocks through Baltimore to transfer to another railroad line. Along the way, they were blocked and attacked by secessionist sympathizers, first with stones, then with pistols. Several of the Massachusetts troops fired into the mob. Twelve civilians and four soldiers were killed in the ensuing fighting.

Among the civilian dead was Francis X. Ward, a friend of James Ryder Randall. Upon learning of his friend’s death, Randall penned the nine stanzas that would become our state’s official song. Randall’s poem describes the Union as “Northern scum,” and to President Lincoln as “despot,” “tyrant” and “Vandal.” Randall calls for Marylanders to “avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore.”

The original sheet music of "Maryland, My Maryland"

The original sheet music of “Maryland, My Maryland”

It was published a week after the riot in a New Orleans newspaper, the Sunday Delta. Soon after, it was set to the tune of “Lauriger Horatius” (also the tune of “O Tannebaum”) by Jennie Cary, the daughter of a prominent secessionist Baltimore family, and immediately became a popular battle hymn throughout the South. Some accounts say that General Robert E. Lee had his troops sing it as they entered Frederick in 1862 before the Battle of Antietam. But it was not until 1939 that the Maryland legislature officially enshrined it as our state song.

The timing of that action is interesting; it’s the same year as the release of the blockbuster film “Gone with the Wind,” a sort of high-­‐water mark for American nostalgia for the vanquished Confederacy.

The issue of the song is a singular example of a larger question facing America as a people: how should we regard the historical legacy of the Confederacy and the Civil War? For more than a century now, the memory of the Confederacy has been honored and venerated throughout the South. Somehow, this veneration has been at least tacitly accepted by the rest of the country. (Well, at least by its white majority.)

Look at the legacies of the two brightest stars in the vast constellation of Confederate “heroes.” Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis are positively sanctified throughout the South. Even in the rest of the country, they’re very gently treated as honored historical figures.

Our children’s textbooks do not describe them as the leaders of a treasonous insurrection. They don’t blame them for precipitating a war that cost over 600,000 lives. They don’t emphasize the fact that they fought to establish a nation explicitly based on the practice of human slavery and the doctrine of the superiority and supremacy of the white race.

Why not? All of these descriptions can be ably defended by historical fact, but that’s not how we remember Bobby Lee and Jeff Davis. No, America has preferred to invent a mythology of a doomed but noble Lost Cause. And the vast majority of white Americans, North and South, have largely accepted this myth as history.

The first great feature film success in America was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. The film glamorized the antebellum South, and cast the Rebels as the victims of a vile Yankee aggression. After their tragic defeat, the vanquished Rebels, now organized as the Ku Klux Klan, are the heroes, defending white womanhood from ravenous black Freedmen. Military engineers from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point served as technical advisors and provided artillery for the film’s battle scenes. President Woodrow Wilson screened the film at the White House, although he distanced himself from it after the film provoked anti-­‐black riots in several cities.

Twenty-­‐four years later, the aforementioned “Gone with the Wind” presented a slightly more nuanced view of the Confederacy, the Civil War and Reconstruction, but it too reinforced the mythology of a tranquil antebellum South stoutly defending its “traditional values” against rampaging Yankees. Both films present blacks as inferior, ignorant, and unprepared for freedom.

The mythology embodied by both films served the purposes of the white majority in both North and South for most of the twentieth century. It enabled the South to re-­‐implement white supremacy through segregation and Jim Crow subjugation, and it allowed white Northerners to turn a blind eye to it.

The civil rights movement has battled this mythology since the 1950s, and it still has not been entirely successful. In fact, resistance to desegregation only intensified white devotion to the Lost Cause mythology. And, while it is no longer as overtly racist as it once was, it can still be detected in those who fly the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of “heritage, not hate.”

But what “heritage” are we honoring? The battle flag, like the legacy of the Confederacy it represents, shouldn’t be forgotten. Rather it should be remembered for what it was: a terrible mistake. To continue to honor its memory is itself a hateful insult to our black fellow citizens; that ought to be enough to put it away, as has been done in South Carolina after the murders at Emanuel AME Church.

The same holds true of “Maryland, My Maryland.” It’s time to put it away.

“Maryland, My Maryland”
by James Ryder Randall


The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!


Hark to an exiled son’s appeal,
My Mother State! to thee I kneel,
For life or death, for woe or weal,
Thy peerless chivalry reveal,
And gird thy beauteous limbs with steel,
Maryland! My Maryland!


Thou wilt not cower in the dust,
Thy beaming sword shall never rust,
Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,
Remember Howard’s warlike thrust,-
And all thy slumberers with the just,
Maryland! My Maryland!


Come! ’tis the red dawn of the day,
Come with thy panoplied array,
With Ringgold’s spirit for the fray,
With Watson’s blood at Monterey,
With fearless Lowe and dashing May,
Maryland! My Maryland!


Come! for thy shield is bright and strong,
Come! for thy dalliance does thee wrong,
Come to thine own anointed throng,
Stalking with Liberty along,
And sing thy dauntless slogan song,
Maryland! My Maryland!


Dear Mother! burst the tyrant’s chain,
Virginia should not call in vain,
She meets her sisters on the plain-
Sic semper! ’tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
Arise in majesty again,
Maryland! My Maryland!


I see the blush upon thy cheek,
For thou wast ever bravely meek,
But lo! there surges forth a shriek,
From hill to hill, from creek to creek,
Potomac calls to Chesapeake,
Maryland! My Maryland!


Thou wilt not yield the Vandal toll,
Thou wilt not crook to his control,
Better the fire upon thee roll, Better the shot, the blade, the bowl,
Than crucifixion of the Soul,
Maryland! My Maryland!


I hear the distant thunder-hum,
The Old Line bugle, fife, and drum,
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb-
Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! She burns! She’ll come! She’ll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!


Frederick News Post
Frederick delegate submits bill to change Maryland state song
Thursday, July 9, 2015

EXCERPT: Delegate Karen Lewis Young submitted legislation this week to change the words of Maryland’s state song after several of her constituents sent her emails about the song’s “inappropriateness.”

Young, D-District 3A, said after looking at the words to “Maryland, My Maryland,” it was clear the song celebrates the Confederacy and disparages the Union government.

“The Civil War was the most divisive period in America’s history,” Young said Thursday. “I don’t think our state song should be based on a battle hymn that celebrates that.”

It isn’t the first time someone has tried to change the lyrics to the song. Young said through her research, she found there have been about six attempts.

“I’m surprised that past efforts were unsuccessful,” she said, “but I think that recently, as our consciousness has been raised once again, it warrants [looking again] at this song.”

James Ryder Randall wrote Maryland’s state song while in Louisiana after Union troops marched through Baltimore, according to an unsuccessful bill drafted in 2009. The song showed Randall’s Confederate sympathies, the bill said. Maryland didn’t adopt it as the state song until 1939.

Young proposed that the song be substituted with a poem by the same title written in 1894 by John T. White, a Frederick County native.

“His poem celebrates the beauty of Maryland. The beautiful shores, the majestic mountains,” Young said. “It is in no way controversial, and I think we want to have a song that endures over time and something that just celebrates the state beauty, is unifying and enduring, and not controversial and divisive.”