Correction to This Article
In some Jan. 26 editions, a Metro article about Virginia state senators considering a new state song incorrectly said that Virginia is the only state without an official song. At least one other state, New Jersey, also does not have an official song.

In Quest for a State Song, Va. Looks West

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006

RICHMOND, Jan. 25 -- It may not actually mention Virginia or even be about Virginia, but "Shenandoah" may soon become the commonwealth's official state song.

A Senate panel has voted to designate the melodious folk tune as the state's "interim official state song" -- temporary, that is, in case something better comes along.

The commonwealth has gone without a theme since 1997, when lawmakers retired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" because its lyrics were deemed offensive to black citizens. Lawmakers labeled the anthem, with its references to "darkies" and "massas," the state's "emeritus song" and appointed a 12-member committee to solicit suggestions from state residents and choose a new tune.

But the group was deluged with more than 400 recommendations -- many of them written for the contest and, by all accounts, of widely varying quality. Sausagemaker and country music singer Jimmy Dean and his wife submitted a tune. So did a man who sued the committee, alleging its members were biased from the start in favor of the famed sausage magnate.

After two years of work, the group threw up its hands and disbanded, hoping citizens would spontaneously coalesce around one of the eight finalists.

In the years since, they have not. So Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), the longest-serving member of the body, decided it was time to go for a tried-and-true classic.

Never mind that experts believe "Shenandoah" has little to do with Virginia. Folk music historians agree that the song's exact origins are unknown but that it has been sung widely since at least the mid-19th century. It's considered a sea chantey, a tune sailors would hum while plying the ocean or rivers.

The song's lyrics begin: "Oh, Shenandoah, I love to hear you/Away, you rolling river." But they go on to conclude: "Away, I'm bound away, cross the wide Missouri."

The narrative is about a white trader who falls in love with the daughter of a Native American chief named Shenandoah, the same man for whom the Virginia valley and river were named, said Jeff Place, head archivist for the Smithsonian's folk life collection. The "rolling river" it mentions, he said, is the Missouri, located hundreds of miles west of the state.

"I grew up in Falls Church, singing it in the car, and I thought it was about Virginia then," Place said. Now a scholar of such things, however, Place said he knows better. "At no point was it ever associated with or written about the Shenandoah valley or river."

That point was raised Wednesday by members of the committee, who voted 8 to 4 to adopt the song.

" 'Shenandoah' is one of my favorite songs, but I find myself as stubborn as a Missouri mule when it comes to state songs," said Sen. Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pittsylvania), who declared himself so conflicted that he abstained from the vote. "I think a state song that reflects Virginia should be in Virginia. The reference to Missouri would be wonderful if I were from Missouri. But I'm not."

Never mind, said Colgan: Shenandoah is synonymous with the state, and few people pay attention to the later line anyhow.

"The lyrics don't make much sense," he acknowledged before the vote. "But remember, 250 top artists have recorded the song with those lyrics."

Bob Dylan and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have recorded versions of it. One guy who has not, however, is Jimmy Dean. He has been lobbying lawmakers for years to choose his tune, appropriately named "Virginia."

"It just got into politics, and you know how things get when they get into politics," he said Wednesday. " 'Shenandoah' really has no reference to Virginia. Ours was written for and about Virginia."

To become law, the song bill still must pass a vote of the full Senate, as well as receive support from the House of Delegates and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).

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