U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) spent last summer’s congressional recess focused on notes rather than votes –musical notes, that is.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic several months earlier, Raskin received a call from Elise Bryant, executive director of the D.C. Labor Chorus.
“She said ‘We would like to ask you to write us a new Maryland song because the political debate is just in a complete deadlock, and we can break it with a song’,” Raskin recalled recently. (The congressman was interviewed weeks before his son died on Dec. 31.)
Working with Steve Jones, music director of the D.C. Labor Chorus, Raskin – an avid amateur pianist – focused on the lyrics, and Jones on the music. A recording of “Maryland, My Maryland (The Free State Song)” by Raskin, of Takoma Park, and Jones, of Kensington, debuted last summer at a virtual breakfast of the Maryland delegation to the Democratic National Convention.
As the 2021 session of the Maryland General Assembly gets ready again to debate whether to repeal the controversial “Maryland, My Maryland” – composed during the Civil War by a Confederate sympathizer, James Ryder Randall – as the current state song, Raskin is not the only contender waiting in the wings with a potential replacement.
Jefferson Holland, a 40-year resident of the Annapolis area and a founder of the Eastport Oyster Boys band, had been thinking of composing a new state song since 2015, continually jotting down ideas since for what it should include.
“About the fourth of July [in 2020], I suddenly got inspired to say ‘Hey, if we start now, maybe by the time the state legislature starts, we’ll have something worth thinking about’,” said Holland. A recording of “That’s My Maryland”, for which Holland wrote both the music and lyrics, was released in late summer.
And, with the opening of the General Assembly session next week, another replacement candidate, “Maryland Proud (A Place Called Maryland)” – composed by Wicomico County Councilman Joshua A. Hastings (D) and Salisbury-born, New York City-based singer and songwriter Sarah Bernstein – has emerged.
Hastings – who began his college career as a music major before switching to political science and business administration — has just released the lyrics and an annotated description of their meaning. A preliminary recording of the new composition – the idea for which first came to Hastings eight years ago during a trip to Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland – also has been posted. The final version, delayed by pandemic-related constraints, is expected to follow soon.
Yet another musical contender, “Maryland, Our Home”, has been waiting in the wings since first being performed three years ago at the fall choral concert of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. It’s the creation of Thomas Ponton, the school’s executive director of advancement and a lifelong Maryland resident.
But while legislators are in a position to listen to all four songs – and others that may emerge in the coming months – it’s going to be at least another year before any of the replacement contenders receive a hearing of the legislative variety.
That’s because sponsors of the legislation to do away with the current state song – which has enjoyed that status since 1939 – have decided to go with a straight repeal rather than a “repeal and replace” strategy. If the repeal becomes law this winter, it will be up to a future session of the legislature to determine how to select a new state song.
As it convenes during the pandemic, “the 2021 legislative session is going to be enormously challenging. There is going to be a focus on only priority issues,” explained the repeal bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery).
“Repealing the state song can fit into a small corner of the list of priorities, only because it’s so offensive to so many of us because of the racial history,” added Kagan, alluding to the song’s mention of “Northern scum” and its use of “tyrant” to refer to President Abraham Lincoln. “Having said that, I don’t envision the Senate or House wanting to spend any significant amount of time debating the state song.”
This is the third time that Kagan has sought to move a repeal bill, and both she and House Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore) – who is carrying the legislation in that chamber – expressed optimism that this will be the year, given renewed focus on issues of racial equality in recent months.
“I am very hopeful that it will be one of the very least controversial bills we have before us. It should set land speed records since there is such widespread consensus that it is abundantly past time to get rid of our embarrassing state song that celebrates Confederate themes,” said Kagan.
“The University of Maryland Marching Band won’t play it anymore. At the Preakness, they stopped playing it. We should not be embarrassed by our state song — and the fact that we are means it’s time to take action.”
Said Sample-Hughes in a separate interview: “Our nation as a whole is at a pivotal point right now that we want to seek change…I feel very strongly that the bill will get traction, and I believe we will get [it] out of the House.”
Twice before, in 2016 and 2018, the Senate succeeded in moving legislation to modify the current state song, only to have it die in the House.
A 2016 bill – sponsored by Sens. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) and Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) as well as Kagan – sought to address the offensive portions of the song by revising it, merging lyrics from the original and an 1894 poem by John T. White, also entitled “Maryland, My Maryland.” It cleared the Senate, but failed to get further than a House hearing.
In 2018, Kagan was lead sponsor of a compromise bill to designate the current state song as the “historical state song” which also passed the Senate before receiving an unfavorable report in the House Health and Government Operations Committee.
Then-Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a history buff, “was resistant to the idea of repealing the state song. While he understood the politics, he also defended history,” Kagan recalled. “So we came up with a compromise…that rather than excise it from our law books, we would move it to the section of the code that was just symbols, and we would call it the historical state song. So we would acknowledge history, but not make it our current state song.”
She noted that both Miller’s successor, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), as well as House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) “are very clearly of the opinion that it is time to take action” in terms of a repeal.
“This session, we will pass legislation to repeal the state song so we can better reflect our current values of unity, diversity and inclusion,” Jones said in a statement late last month to the Associated Press. “We have come too far as a state and as a country to continue to embrace symbols of hate and division.”
The Maryland office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations applauded Jones’ declaration Tuesday.
“As America grapples with a racial reckoning, it’s time to do away with symbols and relics that hinder progress and evoke some of the most troubling chapters of our nation’s history,” said CAIR’s Director in Maryland Zainab Chaudry.
‘That’s a very verbose song you’ve got there’
Kagan said that “in the past, my preference was to do a repeal and replace” – which she proposed unsuccessfully in a separate 2016 bill. The approach involved a panel of judges narrowing down competing replacement songs to a few finalists, and then allowing for Internet voting to “engage the whole state with helping to select a tune that was sing-able and expressed Maryland’s pride and all the attributes that make us unique and special.”
“Would it be nice to repeal it and replace it with a song that kids could start learning right away? Sure,” Kagan added. But she said this approach potentially gets “very complicated, and 2021 is not the year to do that in my opinion.”
As he prepared to compose his alternative to the status quo, Raskin said he “did a lot of reading on Maryland’s times past, and I did a lot of listening to other state songs.” Holland, who is a former river keeper for the West River and among the creators of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, in the 1980s had started a musical trio called Crab Alley. “The concept was always to try to recover traditional songs about the Chesapeake Bay that the watermen might have been singing 100 years ago,” he said.
Consequently, Holland’s “That’s My Maryland” is infused with Chesapeake Bay images (“I want to catch a blue crab in my net as ospreys circle overhead, while paddling upon a quiet creek I wanna hear the geese swarming o’er the marshes of the Eastern Shore”), while Raskin, an outspokenly progressive Democrat, has focused much of his song on key Maryland figures in the fight for equal rights: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Thurgood Marshall along with his former congressional colleague, the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Baltimore City).
Hastings’ “Maryland Proud (A Place Called Maryland)” incorporates references to Douglass and Marshall, as well as to the Chesapeake Bay and other geographical features of a state that has been called “America in miniature” – while paying tribute to a couple of Maryland-born sports heroes, Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken Jr. The Raskin and Holland compositions have references to baseball’s Orioles.
The reference to Cummings (“Oh say can you see Elijah Cummings now, never took his hand from the freedom plow”) elicited an emotional reaction when Raskin’s “Maryland, My Maryland (The Free State Song)” was debuted. “When we unveiled it at the Democratic convention, there were people who cried – and people were calling me all day to say that it was a cathartic experience to get to hear it,” he said.
If Holland’s song places more of an emphasis on being “fun and upbeat,” as he put it, there appears to be agreement among those aspiring to author the next state song that the composition chosen must appeal to a diverse state population.
“I think it should be…sing-able – and reflect everybody and every place, and be almost universal in its coverage in terms of anybody from anywhere, in any of the counties around the state, connecting with it,” Holland said.
“Somebody called me and said, ‘That’s a very verbose song you’ve got there’,” Raskin related. “And I said, ‘You should have seen it before’” it was finished.
He added that Jones, as his collaborator, “helped me whittle this musical filibuster down to one well-rounded unifying song that could actually be sung—and maybe even loved—by every person in our state: fifth graders at assembly, baseball fans up and down I-95, young people graduating from high school or college, people in union halls and town council meetings.”