State song out of tune with today's society

March 08, 2001|By Michael Olesker

ONCE AGAIN in Annapolis, the deep thinkers get the marvelous chance to answer a simple question: Must we live with a piece of history that should embarrass absolutely everyone?

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County legislator acting at the behest of a 15-year-old high school kid who sees what the grownups around him have missed, is asking the General Assembly this week to scratch "Maryland, My Maryland" as the official state song.

As a piece of music, it is derived from an old drinking melody. As a piece of politics, it is derived from humanity's cruelest instincts.

In fact, the only thing "Maryland, My Maryland" has going for it is its lyrics: Nobody knows them. Go ahead, ask anybody. They won't know. If they did, and they stopped to pick the words apart, and put them into historic context, they'd be appalled at the sentiments behind them.

Franchot is raising the issue now, because a 15-year-old kid named Ben Meiselman, a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School, contacted him after he deciphered the lyrics for a civics class. In Annapolis yesterday, Meiselman testified at a hearing on behalf of what is now known as House Bill 1057.

What he told delegates was simple: This is a hateful song that should not represent the good people of the self-proclaimed Free State. And removing the song does not whitewash history and does not claim that it did not -- at one time -- represent some people's sentiments. It says that, in a more civilized era, we wish to do better with our state's official musical message.

If a 15-year-old can work this out, why can't the deep thinkers at the State House?

"Maryland, My Maryland" was written in 1861, in the immediate aftermath of an attack by a secessionist mob in Baltimore on a regiment of Massachusetts soldiers on their way to Washington to join the Union Army. A schoolteacher named James Ryder Randall found this bloodlust so inspiring that he sat down and wrote a poem to call his home state to battle. It became the only state song urging overthrow of the government.

Beautiful.

Hasn't anybody in Annapolis read this thing?

All the times they've heard it played, hasn't it dawned on any of them to wonder what the lyrics said, and what they meant, and whether they might be inappropriate as sentiments to be memorized by school children?

Randall depicts Abraham Lincoln as a "tyrant," a "despot" and a "vandal." Then, beginning to find his stride, he gets really nasty. Rather than yield to Lincoln's tyranny, rather than yield to "Northern scum," says Randall:

"Better the fire upon thee roll/

Better the shot, the blade, the bowl/

Than crucifixion of the soul."

Better, he is saying, to continue the enslavement of human beings than endure what he sees as the death of our very souls.

In a time when South Carolina has finally learned to blush about waving the Confederate flag over its statehouse, and Virginia has finally retired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," surely the Free State can make a similar gesture. It is a song badly out of key in our time, or anyone's.

Also, not to be minimized, it's not exactly the only discomforting reminder of a Marylander's significant role in the Civil War. Still standing outside the State House is a statue honoring Roger B. Taney. He was chief justice of the United States. Also, he helped spark the Civil War.

It was Taney's decision, regarding the slave Dred Scott, that dealt a body blow to the cause of abolitionists. Taney declared that black people were not citizens, and were "so inferior that they have no rights which a white man [is] bound to respect." He said slaves were the properties of their owners, no different from a mule or a horse, and that no one had the right to take away such property. That decision split the country and helped lead to war.

Today, we still honor Taney with that statue outside the State House -- and still sing "Maryland, My Maryland."

Each in the name of preserving an honest history, no matter how painful and wrongheaded it was.

In the case of "Maryland, My Maryland," the argument has been made that to remove it as the state song is to deny its role in the state's legacy. But the point's a little shaky. It wasn't until 1939 -- three-quarters of a century after the Civil War ended -- that the General Assembly adopted it as the state song.

Then, 41 years later, there were legislative attempts to remove it. But the efforts got nowhere. Confederate sympathizers petitioned legislators to retain it. With customary courage and sensitivity, the legislators caved in.

This time around, maybe they can show backbone equal to that of a 15-year-old kid and declare the song an embarrassment and not in any way the official voice of Maryland.

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