O ‘Shenandoah,’ how long to hear you? Controversy over state-song pick rages on
“Shenandoah” is a fine tune – on that point, few will disagree.
As fine a tune as it might be, though, is “Shenandoah” – which is, depending on who you believe, either about the Shenandoah Valley, a Native American tribal chief or life on the Western frontier – worthy of the designation Virginia’s state song?
” ‘Shenandoah’ is a beautiful song. I’ll admit that the lyrics are somewhat confusing. But we can work through that,” said Sen. Charles Colgan, D-Manassas, whose legislation naming “Shenandoah” the interim state song of Virginia passed the Senate last month.
The presence of a measure tapping “Shenandoah” as the state song – and the affirmative vote in the Senate – came as a bit of a surprise to those who have been monitoring the nearly decade-old drama involving the process for replacing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” which was retired as the state song in 1997.
“It kind of caught everybody by surprise. There was nothing on this for the longest time, and then all of the sudden, the news was that ‘Shenandoah’ was going to be our state song,” said Bob Clouse, a Palmyra composer whose “Oh, Virginia” was selected as one of eight finalists in a state-song selection process set up by the bipartisan Virginia Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
“They’re digging back way into the past to replace a song that was also from way back in the past. That says something to me about the process,” said Robbin Thompson, whose 1970s rock hit “Sweet Virginia Breeze” was also on that list of state-song finalists.
“The Senate seems to have moved fairly quickly on this. I’m just not sure that the public has been fully brought into the process,” said Weyers Cave Del. Steve Landes, the chair of the Republican caucus in the House of Delegates, which will weigh in on the state-song issue this month.
“Most of us think that it’s been a long time since we had a state song, and it would be nice to have one. But one question that I have is, if this an interim song, I have a question about what that really means. Does that mean until we decide to address the issue? Does it mean next year? The year after? I just don’t know.
“This issue does need to be dealt with. I’m just not sure if this is the right way to go about doing this,” Landes said.
Colgan said his motivation is to get a state song in place in time for the state’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown next year.
“The interim tag is a recognition of the fact that we might want to revisit this in the future,” Colgan told The Augusta Free Press. “It leaves the door open to look at this again down the road. I think it’s an important issue now because we’re getting ready to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown. We need a state song now.”
Whether or not “Shenandoah” is the right choice for the interim or for a longer period is a matter of conjecture at this point – particularly given the controversy regarding the song’s geographical references.
“I’m not sure that ‘Shenandoah’ is the appropriate even interim song because my understanding is that the lyrics refer to places like Missouri, and I’m not sure that it’s even referring to our part of Virginia,” Landes told the AFP.
Landes is right on that point. Jeff Place, the head archivist for the Smithsonian’s folk-life collection, said “Shenandoah” is an Atlantic Ocean sea chanty from the 19th century – and was used a lot on inland rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri as a boat chanty in the Midwest.
“That’s why you hear the line in the song about crossing the wide Missouri. It’s actually a song that people were singing on the Missouri River. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Shenandoah River or the Shenandoah Valley,” Place said.
Place, a native of Virginia, admits that he was surprised to learn that the song that he remembered singing as a child on family trips to the Blue Ridge wasn’t actually about the valley or river that he was going to visit.
“Some people have asked me, ‘Well, at this point, everybody thinks it’s about Virginia, so what does it matter?’ The answer to that question, in my mind, is, if you ask somebody in Missouri what it’s about, would they say Virginia, I seriously doubt it,” Place told the AFP.
So, then, why “Shenandoah”? Country-music legend Jimmy Dean – whose “Virginia” made the cut and was among the finalists to replace “Carry Me BacK” – sees politics at hand.
“They picked a song, and it’s a beautiful song. ‘Shenandoah’ is a gorgeous song, but it has nothing to do with Virginia,” Dean said.
“Our song was written about a place where we live and love, and we tried to capture a little bit of the beauty and the strength of the Commonwealth,” Dean said.
“I think politics became involved. There’s not much that I can do about it. I think it’s wrong, because I think we have a good song,” Dean told the AFP.
“I think the reason they’re going with ‘Shenandoah’ is because it’s safe,” said Dean’s wife, Donna, who cowrote “Virginia” with her husband.
“It won’t get anybody in trouble with their constituents. And nobody can get mad. Nobody’s getting mad about it. It’s a beautiful song,” Donna Dean told the AFP.
Thompson as well sees “Shenandoah” – which as it turns out did not make the list of songs that was designated as finalists in the state-song competition – as being considered a safe choice politically.
“For one thing, it’s an old, old song – so there aren’t any issues with ownership,” said Thompson, who balked at the advisory commission’s request that he sign over the rights to his song in the event that it were chosen as the state song.
“I think ‘Shenandoah’ is a great song. Whether it should be the state song or not, I don’t know. The thing that bothers me is that the legislators are basically deciding amongst themselves,” Thompson told the AFP.
Katy Benko, a Northern Virginia-based country-music recording artist who has recorded a version of Clouse’s “Oh, Virginia,” thinks the attention paid to the political considerations has subverted the selection process.
“Initially, it was fair. They set up a committee, and they had people from all across the state submit songs and picked eight finalists. I figured that that was pretty fair, but they said that we had these eight finalists, and we were going to get feedback from the people of the state of Virginia, and we’re going to pick a new state song. I’m the kind of person that when you say something, you stick to it,” Benko said.
“I just can’t believe that they dragged their feet for so long. I honestly think that there’s some sort of reason that they don’t want to make a decision, and that’s really disappointing, because I thought from the beginning that they should turn this over to the people of Virginia and let the people vote, let the people pick their state song,” Benko said.
“Especially with the Jamestown anniversary coming up next year, you want a state song that really speaks about the history of the state, and how it has been such a fundamental force for the shaping of this country. To pick a song that just has nothing to do with Virginia, it just seems kind of silly,” Benko told the AFP.
What to do about the state song has been a divisive issue dating back to the 1980s, said Bob Roberts, a political-science professor at James Madison University.
“It started with ‘Carry Me Back’ when some experts recommended that you could change a few words and bring it back, but African-American leaders didn’t like that, because they said it was symbolic of a whole era,” Roberts told the AFP.
And now, ironically, another controversy has erupted over a state-song possibility because of issues with the song’s lyrics.
“I think it should have been addressed when we originally dealt with it. Unfortunately, the committee just couldn’t come to a consensus and agreement. It’s definitely something we need to deal with,” Landes said.
That is something that the politicians and the musicians can agree on.
“State songs become state songs because they’re popular amongst the people. And if the people of Virginia want ‘Shenandoah’ to be their state song, then by God, ‘Shenandoah’ ought to be the state song. But if a bunch of legislators decide that that’s what they like, it’s like everything else that comes down the pike. They’d better think about what their constituents are thinking. And they’d better ask them. Because in the end, it’s on them,” Thompson said.
“After all this time, all I want – and all everybody involved in this wants, I believe – is a yes or a no,” Clouse told the AFP.
“It’s like we’re in a close horse race that came down to a photo finish, and there are eight horses in the picture with their tongues hanging out trying to get to the finish tape, and they’ve been frozen in the frame for eight years. We just want to know what the answer is so we can move on,” Clouse said.