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Virginia Searches For A New State Song


Virginia has a rich history, which is a source of great pride. But one thing it does not have is a state song. It used to, but the song was retired in 1997.


LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Carry me back to old Virginny. There's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow.

SIEGEL: That's "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" as it was sung by Louis Armstrong. Well, since 1997, the home of Shenandoah and the mother of Presidents has been unable to agree on a new musical anthem. One of the bills before the Virginia legislature this session would finally remedy that situation. The man behind the campaign is Professor James or Bud Robertson and he joins me now from Richmond. Welcome to the program.

JAMES ROBERTSON: Thank you, sir.

SIEGEL: And Virginia had a song for years, as we mentioned. What was the problem with "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny?"

ROBERTSON: It was written by an African American in 1857, but it was written in Negro dialect, which was offensive to many people, understandably.

SIEGEL: It was written in the character of a slave who's yearning for the old days, back working for master.

ROBERTSON: Yes. Yes, indeed. Yes.

SIEGEL: Well, so in 1997 it was declared sonata non grata, I guess would be the Latin.

ROBERTSON: That's appropriate.

SIEGEL: And talk began to turn to the folk anthem "Shenandoah" in 2006.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Oh Shenandoah. I long to see you, await your rolling rivers.

ROBERTSON: "Shenandoah" is one of the most beautiful, beloved melodies we have, and it makes one think instinctively of Virginia. I don't know any other melody that does that.

SIEGEL: Even though there is a line in the lyric that talks about, across the wide Missouri.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Missouri...

SIEGEL: And there's the rather un-anthem-like verse, oh Shenandoah I love your daughter.

ROBERTSON: Yes. When the song was first suggested as a state song, a legislative committee refused it because it referred only to the Missouri. It said nothing about Virginia or its beauty or its past or it future. But the song itself - it was such an appropriate Virginia song that if we could only get up-to-date words for it, it would make an ideal state song.

SIEGEL: And where did you find a lyricist to put new words to the old tune?

ROBERTSON: He's in New York. His name is Mike Greenly. He was born and raised in South Carolina, an honor graduate from Duke. His heart is all Southern. And Mike, I think, did a beautiful job. He gave us the song. I'm not sure we could've afforded him. And it's now in the legislature running through the mill.

SIEGEL: Well, let's take a listen to the product of the lyrics of Mike Greenly and the tune of Shenandoah.


UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) I fill with pride at all you give us. Rolling hills, majestic mountains. From the Shenandoah to the Atlantic, rivers wide and far as tall. All in one Virginia.

SIEGEL: What do you feel when you hear the lyrics that have been put to "Shenandoah" here to become "Our Great Virginia?"

ROBERTSON: I cried the first time I heard. But I still think it's just a moving song. I think you have to listen to it, and there's a lot of legislative support for this song, and I hope very fervently that it does become a reality.

SIEGEL: Professor Robertson, thank you very much for talking with us and sharing the song with us.

ROBERTSON: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: That's James Bud Robertson, professor emeritus of history at Virginia Tech. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.