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What Is The Future Of The State Song 'Maryland, My Maryland?'

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An engraving by F.F. Walker depicts the Massachusetts militia passing through Baltimore and being attacked by a mob in 1861. It inspired the poem that became Maryland's state song.
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An engraving by F.F. Walker depicts the Massachusetts militia passing through Baltimore and being attacked by a mob in 1861. It inspired the poem that became Maryland's state song.

"Maryland, My Maryland" has been the state song of Maryland for more than 75 years. Critics allege that it's based on a pro-Confederacy poem. Attempts to change the song have routinely failed in the General Assembly, but this year might be different.

Mike Miller is the longest serving state senate president in the U.S. Since 1987 he's headed the chamber, and he loves to pepper his remarks during each days floor session with history of the senate. The only thing Miller might like talking about more is the history of the state itself, and that includes the state song.

"I have a handwritten version that was written by James Ryder Randall on my wall. He wrote it. He hand-wrote the verse I have on my wall. I have a portrait of James Ryder Randall on my office wall. In oil. Nobody else wanted it. I collect historical photos and portraits. So it's there," Miller says.

Randall wrote the poem "Maryland, My Maryland" following an April 1861 incident in Baltimore, where Confederate supporters attacked Union troops on their way to D.C. shortly after the start of the Civil War. Four Union soldiers and 12 civilians were killed.

The opening line of the poem refers to then-president Abraham Lincoln as a "despot," and later calls Northern troops "scum." Miller long opposed changing the state song, feeling it's a part of Maryland history and should be preserved as such. But as the national conversation has turned on symbols tied to the Confederacy, Miller has now softened his view.

"Maryland, My Maryland" is an annual fixture at the Preakness in Baltimore.

"I think we can reach a compromise where we keep the current song as a historical song, and move forward with the same melody, the 'O Tannenbaum' melody. But reflect Maryland's values," he says.

But Miller still wants to keep some of the original lyrics. "If we have a new song, I'd like to keep the stanza of 'Remember Carroll's war-like thrust' which certainly should not be offensive to anyone."

That stanza, the third verse, hearkens back to two of Maryland's heroes of the American Revolution: Charles Carroll and John Howard. It's traditionally the only part of the song sung in public, such as at the Preakness every year in Baltimore.

Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) is the sponsor of the bill that would keep just that stanza from the original version, and add another from an alternate and much less controversial version of the poem written by John White in 1894. But Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) has a different approach. She wants to have a contest to choose a new song.

"A panel of experts will narrow down the entries to between three and 10 songs. Residents will be able to vote online. And then the legislature will pass a bill to make it our new song," Kagan says.

Virginia did something similar to replace "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny", which is now the state song emeritus. But it took almost 20 years for Virginia to settle on its new song "Our Great Virginia." Kagan doesn't think it would take that long in Maryland. If her colleagues want to go a different route, she's okay with that.

"We need to repeal any song that calls Abraham Lincoln a despot," she says.

One person not keen on making any changes is Gov. Larry Hogan. Last summer the governor said he did not support changes to state symbols with ties to the Confederacy or slavery, calling the movement to do that "political correctness run amok." But Hogan did stop the issuing of specialty Maryland license plates with the Confederate flag, and recalled all currently in circulation. And Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery) has a bill this year ensuring that never changes.

"A different governor could change this by administrative action. We just want to make sure that this issue is settled now and forever," Barve says.

Barve says there are fewer than 100 such plates in Maryland.

Bills on these two issues are in committee now in Annapolis. The session runs through mid-April.

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