RICHMOND, JAN. 25 -- More than two decades after then-Sen. L. Douglas Wilder denounced the singing of the state song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," the General Assembly is moving toward changing the racist lyrics of the official state anthem.

Almost annual attempts to get rid of the offending lyrics, either by changing them or adopting a new song, have died in committee. But today, the House of Delegates voted 80 to 15 in favor of a modernized version of "Carry Me Back" that removes the words "darkey," "massa" and "missis," but otherwise retains the original lyrics, which supporters of the song invariably point out were written by a black man.

It was on Feb. 10, 1970, that the future governor, who just months before had become the first black to be elected to the state Senate since Reconstruction, rose on the Senate floor for his maiden speech.

"I should have hoped," Wilder began, "that my time in so rising could have been spent for much more a deserving and needed mutual cause, and really, by this time in our lives, there would be no necessity for what I have to say."

He said that at a legislative reception the night before, he and his wife had listened in stunned silence as the words, "that's where this ole darkey's heart am longed to go," were warbled by the attendees, including many of his Senate colleagues. At the conclusion of the song, Wilder walked out "so as not to dignify the occasion."

A week later, Wilder introduced a bill that would have repealed "Carry Me Back" as the state song. But it garnered no co-sponsors and died without a hearing.

This year's attempt to make the song palatable was proposed by Del. Clinton Miller (R-Shenandoah), a former western singer who performed on television shows in Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s with country stars Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark and George Hamilton IV.

Miller offered his version of the song on the House floor Thursday, after the delegates had listened to another version, recorded with full orchestra, and played on a boom box that was placed on the clerk's desk, in front of a skeptical House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry), who voted against change.

Nearly all of the 100 delegates stood -- though some had to be prodded -- and more than a few sang along to lyrics proposed by Frank J. Guida, a Norfolk songwriter.

Guida, a member of the Song Writers Hall of Fame, whose 250 songs include "If You Want to be Happy," sung by Cher in the movie "Mermaids," "Quarter to Three," "High School USA," and "School Is Out," said he decided to rewrite the 1875 lyrics of James Bland because he was "angry and disillusioned with plans to abandon the most famous state song ever written."

Among those who sat out the performance was Del. William P. Robinson Jr. (D-Norfolk), chairman of the legislative Black Caucus. Robinson, who ended up voting for the measure today, said, "I just didn't feel like standing."

Robinson's father was one of two black delegates in the House when Wilder tried to repeal the song. The senior Robinson said at the time that while "our slave heritage is a historical fact that you can't change, in our so-called polite society there is no reason why intelligent people should persist in such nostalgia."

The younger Robinson said the question of the song wasn't even raised at today's meeting of the Black Caucus (there are now seven blacks in the House and three in the Senate). In today's vote, Robinson and four other black delegates voted for the change; one black abstained and one simply did not vote.

Despite his vote for the bill, Robinson and others expressed concern that sanitizing the lyrics "may resurrect" the song's popularity, and "give people a chance to sing whatever version they choose."

Del. Jerrauld C. Jones (D-Norfolk), a Black Caucus member, said he supported the "incremental progress" represented by the change because "there is no support for total elimination."

For his part, Wilder never made another attempt to repeal the song, and his office said today that he has not expressed an opinion on the current effort. However, he likes to point out that "they never sing {the song} anymore."

Lyrics to the first stanza of 'Carry Me Back to Old Virginia' (with current wording of lines that have been revised in italics):

Carry me back to old Virginia,

There's where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow,

There's where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,

There's where my heart is longing to go.

(There's where the old darkey's heart am long'd to go.)

There's where I labor'd so hard in the sunlight,

(There's where I labor'd so hard for old massa,)

Day after day in the field of yellow corn.

No place on earth do I love more sincerely,

Than old Virginia, the state where I was born.