Compromise: Write a second state song

March 19, 2001|By Neal Lavon

TAKOMA PARK -- Three high school students from the Washington suburbs, armed with the support of Democratic Del. Peter Franchot of Takoma Park, fulfilled part of a class project recently by suggesting the General Assembly repeal "Maryland, My Maryland" as the state song. Earlier attempts to retire it were unsuccessful.

For history's sake, I hope this one results in a similar outcome.

I'm neither a Confederate sympathizer nor do I wish to re-fight the Civil War. The Confederacy may have been many things, but its reason for existence sprang from human bondage, and it had to be defeated.

These students and Mr. Franchot are within their rights to petition the legislature. But I wish they would have considered some historical -- and societal -- reasons why the song should remain, even if controversial.

Most state songs are, to put it charitably, innocuous. But Maryland's is perhaps the only one with attitude, and based on specific historical events.

Its nine verses were written by transplanted Marylander James Ryder Randall after Massachusetts troops, on their way to Washington, marched through Baltimore's streets in April 1861, resulting in a deadly riot.

The song begs Maryland to secede and join Virginia in the Confederacy. Critics say the song offends modern sensitivities because it labels Abraham Lincoln a "tyrant," refers to Northerners as "scum," celebrates the Confederacy and, therefore, by extension, slavery.

One of the students complained the words are "dense" and hard to understand, even though only the first of its nine verses are usually taught to Maryland students.

Caught between North and South, and divided among themselves, Marylanders practically encompassed all the conflicts and passions of the war. Nobody need take the song as an official endorsement of the views expressed, but rather see it as a piece of history to be preserved. Instead of sweeping it under the historical rug, teachers could use it to launch into discussions about Maryland's role in the conflict.

Was the North justified in suspending habeas corpus laws and imprisoning suspected Southern sympathizers (including elected officials and newspaper editors) following the Baltimore riots? Should pro-Confederate officials have burned bridges and torn down telegraph lines in an attempt to deny Union soldiers access to Washington? Was Maryland a Southern state with a Northern government? Or a Northern state with a Southern conscience? Or both? Or neither?

Sometimes history makes people uncomfortable. But students should be taught about their past, even if they feel it's offensive. If one group or another's being offended is the standard by which historical material is to be judged, there will be little left to teach in history classes.

The attempt to repeal "Maryland, My Maryland" is also emblematic of a more troubling trend. Call it the "I-don't-like-it-so-it-should-be-banned" school of thought now prevalent in society. Once Americans were tolerant of views they opposed, but now we have an "I'm right, you're wrong," take-no-prisoners approach, neither listening to nor even attempting to understand the views of others.

I hope Mr. Franchot and his high school allies refrain from following this path. The previous unsuccessful attempts to repeal the song indicate there is still support for it around the state. Rather than engage in a bruising fight over symbols, why not a compromise?

Several states have more than one official song. Florida, Arkansas, Montana and Louisiana have two each; Tennessee claims six. Rather than repeal "Maryland, My Maryland," why not just add another song?

I can already hear verses extolling the "rolling hills of the gateway west" and the "mighty Atlantic lapping upon our Eastern Shore," which coincidentally provides a perfect rhyme for Baltimore. This would protect the original for those who wish to observe it and provide an option for those who don't.

But more important, it would preserve the state's history in a meaningful way and show Marylanders will not "cower in the dust" when facing its sometimes painful past.

Neal Lavon covers political and other issues for the Voice of America in Washington. The views he expresses are his own.

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