`My Maryland' apologists off-key in opposing repeal

March 25, 2001|By Michael Olesker

TODAY WE GIVE voice to Jeane Klender and her former music pupils at Relay Elementary School, in Arbutus, who sang a sweeter song than James Ryder Randall or his apologists at the State House.

It was Randall who wrote the poem, in 1861, urging Marylanders to spurn the "Northern scum" and stand up for the enslavement of human beings as the Civil War broke out. It was 78 years later, in 1939, that some neanderthals belatedly voted to make it Maryland's state song. And it was a House panel that voted, the other day, to kill a bill that blessedly would have repealed it.

In her retirement, 76-year-old Jeane Klender should have kept them all after school for failing to play well with their fellow citizens.

The deeply sensitive members of the House Commerce and Government Affairs Committee weren't necessarily endorsing the unkind words in "Maryland, My Maryland" about the "tyrant" and "vandal" Abraham Lincoln, or the reference to "crucifixion of the soul" of those who did not stand up for slavery.

No, these committee members are just folks standing up for good ol' tradition, for history as it is, and not as we wish it would be.

So they say.

The question is: whose history? A history adapted as the state song three-quarters of a century after the war it depicts? Words adapted to the melody of a German drinking song from words intended only as a poem? A song whose lyrics are so difficult to understand that schoolchildren mouth them without understanding what they're saying - and adults find them repugnant?

Eighteen years ago, it was the lyrics' indecipherability that prompted Jeane Klender to change them. Forget politics for a moment.

She wasn't trying to whitewash history or tear us loose from our roots. She just thought it ridiculous that children were going through the motions on the song that allegedly speaks for all Marylanders. "It was 1983, my last year of teaching," she recalled last week, speaking from her retirement home in Florida. She lived in Catonsville back then. "I had a second-grade class I was preparing to sing `Maryland, My Maryland,' for Maryland Day ceremonies.

"After a few run-throughs, they said, `Can we sing something else?' They didn't understand the words. So, one of the other teachers said, `Why don't you write some of your own words?' "

She did. In an hour, she came up with lyrics that lift the heart. Relay Elementary's principal, George Heck, suggested she call legislators in Annapolis to run the words past them. The response was so lovely that Klender was asked to bring the kids to the State House for a rendition.

"It was thrilling," Klender remembered. "We put the kids on a bus, and their parents rode behind us. The kids sang so beautifully, and we could hear people saying, `Oh, this is gonna pass.' "

But it didn't. The same arguments were made then as now - that we shouldn't tamper with history, no matter how insensitive it was, no matter how clumsy its claim as legitimate history. That we shouldn't attempt to smooth over our own rough spots. That it's a reflection of the sentiments of a time and place.

None of which is true about words written as a poem, and only later put to music, and only much later - well into the following century - declared the state song.

Endorsement of Klender's lyrics from organizations such as the teachers union, and Baltimore County school officials, made no difference. Nor did letters from Scout troops, churches and school music departments who embraced the new words.

So, just for the record - and, maybe, as a reminder if the issue ever comes up again - here are Klender's lyrics. Compare Klender's version - which celebrates the state's geography, its history, its patriots, its diverse people, and its ideals -with the original poem's references to "scum," to the "tyrant" and "despot" Lincoln, and to the defense of human enslavement.

And ask a simple question: Which better represents the sentiments of Maryland?

O join we all to lift our song

Maryland, Our Maryland!

To home and state we've loved so long

Maryland, Our Maryland!

From western mountains to the shore

From countryside to Baltimore.

Salute the land that we adore.

Maryland, Our Maryland!

On southern shores, by land so fair,

Maryland, Our Maryland!

The Ark and Dove first anchored there,

Maryland, Our Maryland!

Where Calvert's vision burst anew,

Where founders toiled to make it true,

A state was born - from there it grew.

Maryland, Our Maryland!

O hear and hail our heroes' fame,

Maryland, our Maryland!

Who fought to keep her glorious name.

Maryland, Our Maryland!

We honor Carroll, Howard, Key

And those who led in victory

As enemies came from the sea.

Maryland, Our Maryland!

From sons and daughters, bold and free

Maryland, Our Maryland!

Come deeds to live in history.

Maryland, Our Maryland!

Diversity in race and creed,

Yet, unity in times of need.

Together still we take the lead.

Maryland, Our Maryland!

With blessings from our past endowed,

Maryland, Our Maryland!

This land has flourished, strong and proud.

Maryland, Our Maryland!'Twas built on faith and loyalty,

A lamp to love and liberty.

Her future looks to you and me.

Maryland, Our Maryland!

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