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Songless for a Decade, Va. Inches Toward a New Tune

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Virginia's House Rules Committee will break out the boombox this morning and listen to three candidates vying to be the state's official song. There's the anthemlike "Virginia, Ever Enshrined," by a Northern Virginia music teacher; the six-note "Cradle of Liberty," a hymn by a Blacksburg lawyer; and "Virginia," a bluegrass romp by a Giles County musician.

Wait. Didn't they already do this?

Sort of. A decade ago, the General Assembly retired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" as the official state song after nearly three decades of objections because its lyrics, including references to "darkies" and "massa," were considered racist. Seven years ago, a prolonged competition for a more palatable song narrowed the list to eight.

And yet, Virginia remains songless.

The effort to designate a ditty has regained traction this year because some lawmakers want a tune that can be sung this spring for Queen Elizabeth, who is scheduled to visit Jamestown to celebrate 400 years of Virginia history. But getting everybody on the same page of sheet music is proving nearly impossible -- yet again.

Area songwriters disgusted by the inaction have come up with their own sendups, including a Randy Newmanesque parody with such lines as, "We may not be the best, but at least we're better than West . . . Virginia." Perhaps most presciently, one of the finalists penned words to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in 2000, predicting that in 2007 there still wouldn't be a decision: "Glory, glory Hallelujah, you don't have the winner, do ya?" One lawmaker was so frustrated a few years back that he nominated "Louie Louie."

Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) is the de facto head of the now-defunct state song commission. When "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," the state song since 1940, was retired to emeritus status in 1997, Hanger headed an "American Idol"-like search for a replacement.

He's taken heat for taking so long, been accused of favoritism, sued for $10 million in unrealized royalties by a rejected songwriter (the suit was thrown out), spent $11,000 from his private campaign funds for the selection process to deflect criticism that he was spending state money frivolously and listened to close to 400 potential state songs, some of which, he says politely, "weren't striking chords."

So why bother? Does anyone really sing "Go, Mississippi" or any of the six official Tennessee state songs? And is the 2003 update to Utah's state song -- with such lyrics as "New technology's here / Growing faster each year" -- really better?

Besides, could there ever be one song that would work for all Virginians -- black and white, tidewater and mountain, fast-growing urban, liberal north and rural, conservative south?

All the more reason to have a state song, Hanger said. Perhaps it would foster a little unity. "Music can do that," he said.

It's just that no one can agree which music.

In 2000, the General Assembly appeared ready to pick one of the eight finalists chosen by Hanger's group. But when allegations flew that Grammy Award-winning Jimmy Dean had used his sausage money and influence to buy the competition, lawmakers decided to put off the vote for a year.

"We needed to build consensus," Hanger said. So he sent CDs of the songs to radio stations and set up a Web site so residents could vote. "We were waiting for one of those songs to take root and really be popular," he said. He wanted something on par with "Georgia on My Mind," Connecticut's "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "My Old Kentucky Home" or the hit song from the musical "Oklahoma!"

But no clear favorite emerged, and Hanger moved on to more inviting crusades, such as tax reform. The commission was disbanded and lost the staff person who was keeping track of the votes. Now there are state song files all over the place -- in Hanger's office, in the archives somewhere at the state library and who knows where else.

Last year, one commission member tried to get "Shenandoah" designated the official "interim" state song. Things looked pretty good for a while, but lawmakers eventually voted it down -- once they realized the song actually has nothing to do with Virginia.

So this year, a couple of songwriters decided to short-circuit the dead-end commission process and sent their songs directly to their delegates or senators.

That's how Del. Dave W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) came to be a fan of Burke music teacher and songwriter Carol Boyd Leon's "Virginia, Ever Enshrined," with such lyrics as: "Virginia, where the rolling mountains capture the eye / Virginia, where the songbirds serenade the clear blue sky."

Thomas DeBusk, a Blacksburg lawyer and choir director, knows his first attempt at songwriting, "Cradle of Liberty," is a long shot. "My delegate told me it doesn't have a prayer of a chance," he said. "They say this is just fluff: 'We've got roads to build, important work to do, and this is not important. We'll do it later.' Well, it's been 10 years since we retired 'Carry Me Back.' It is later."

Upon request, he broke into song: "Oooh, more than life, give me liberty or gi-hi-hi-hi-hive me death."

Last summer, Del. Anne B. Crockett-Stark (R-Wythe) was at a bluegrass concert and heard Lester Ray Sears's song "Virginia," which is about missing both a girl and the state. She was convinced that it could make a great state song.

"We have a state bird, a state flower, we even have a state insect. We have a state dog, a state boat, a state shell," she said. "I think we need a state song."

Hanger pledges to give the new songs a listen. But the most he'll promise is that he'll figure out a new process for picking a song this session.

And what about the queen? What will she hear this summer?

Hanger mused. "Maybe we'll use the song that was the runner-up in the 1940 contest."

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