There is a poem, written by one James Ryder Randall in 1861, that calls for Maryland, a slave state, to secede from the Union and to join the Confederacy. The poem refers to President Abraham Lincoln as "the despot" and "the tyrant." It pleads for Marylanders to take up arms on behalf of the Confederacy against "the northern scum."
The poem, set to music, is today the official state song of Maryland, and it has been since 1939.
I don't know how many adult Marylanders and singing schoolchildren know that "Maryland! My Maryland!" (sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum") is basically a cursing fit aimed at Lincoln (isn't there a monument to him somewhere near Maryland?), at the Union, and at the northern threat to the slaveowning South. I myself didn't know this until just a few days ago, when the local paper carried news of the latest try at squaring the state anthem with a century and a half of human rights progress. And I've lived in Maryland for 25 years (which, in fairness, is 1.7 seconds in Maryland time). I mean, who reads all nine stanzas of a bad histrionic rhyming poem? Who actually listens to and thinks about the words to such parochial martial jingles?
But I'm making excuses. Maryland is below the Mason-Dixon Line, and it was (and still is in many places) Confederate-friendly turf in which there were bloody riots when the Union Army marched through Baltimore on its way south (pictured above). One of the men killed in the riots was a friend of the poet Randall. Hence the weepy, vengeful poem. And hence its continuing regional audience. No getting around it: When the Mid-Atlantic state in which one resides figures it's okay in the 20th and 21st centuries to pin its official pride on the glory of the Confederacy, this is a fact that a citizen (say, a blogger) pretty much has a civic duty to know.
And now the cheeky efforts to end the reign of a name-calling Confederate battle cry as the Maryland state song have resurfaced in 2009, with the State Senate boldly discussing the prospect of naming a commission to study the possibility of changing the lyrics. This move has come up against charges of "political correctness" and "historical revisionism," the former of which is standard screw-social-progress rhetoric but the latter of which has some merit. I personally think altering a long-existing poem to make it palatable to the civilized world, as some in the State Senate seem to want to do, is a coward's way out. As a poet myself, I feel the hair stand up on my neck at the thought of trying to play off an altered work as the real thing.
I say ditch the ridiculous poem altogether. It may have inflated the chests of bitter Marylanders in the years of backlash against Union triumph, and its lyrics may have sat just fine with the official Maryland mood in 1939 amid brutal white supremacy and legal segregation. But in 2009 this song is an anachronism, an offense, and an embarrassment. It is way past time for a new Maryland state tune, preferably one more or less in synch with the broadly-accepted moral imperatives of, say, the past 50 years. I'd say that's not a radical expectation.
What is radical, though, is the fact that this issue is even controversial.
Come to think of it, do you know all of the lyrics to your own state song?