NEWS- Carried back: Two new tunes revive state song debate
Ten years since "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" was relegated to "State Song Emeritus" status for lyrics about "my old darky" and "massa," and eight years since the process to select its replacement stalled, two bills backing two different songs have been introduced into the House of Delegates to settle the issue once and for all.
For a time it looked as if this decade-long problem might be solved– temporarily, at least– during the 2006 session when a resolution to make the folk traditional "Shenandoah" the "Interim State Song" passed the Senate. That's when both Carol Boyd Leon of Burke and Thomas DeBusk of Blacksburg heard the call to compose.
"The lyrics are about leaving Virginia," says Leon of "Shenandoah." "My adrenaline started pumping when I heard that 'Shenandoah' was coming close to being the state song."
A few hundred miles to the south, another Virginian was having a similar reaction.
"I thought, 'Somebody ought to write a homegrown song that's completely Virginian,'" recalls DeBusk of the "Shenandoah" discussion. "So I set out to write something simple, yet profound."
Though they share the same initial inspiration, that's where the similarities end for Leon and DeBusk. When Leon penned "Virginia, Ever Enshrined," the Northern Virginia music teacher did so having written over 200 songs by her count, including the George Mason University alma mater "Patriots' Dreams." Now that Del. Dave Marsden (D-Burke) has introduced a bill to make it the state song, she counts "Virginia, Ever Enshrined" as one of her best works.
"I believe 'Virginia, Ever Enshrined' should be the state song because it has a stirring melody and heartfelt lyrics that represent the entire state," she says.
DeBusk, an attorney and sometime choir director from Southside, says "Cradle of Liberty" was his first crack at songwriting. Despite that lack of experience, Del. Danny Bowling (D-Oakwood) liked the song so much that he drafted legislation that would give it "state song" status.
"It looks at our roots and the unique role we played in the development of our country," says DeBusk, "and it looks at the beauty of the natural heritage we have and celebrates them in a song,"
For DeBusk, making sure "Cradle of Liberty" was a simple, accessible song was priority from the beginning.
"I wanted to write something very un-'Star Spangled Banner,' something easy to sing," he explains. "So the range of my song is six notes."
That's a virtue DeBusk says Leon's "Virginia, Ever Enshrined" lacks.
"It's a worthy effort, but a state song should be easy for your average person to pick up and sing," he says.
Citing her years of experience teaching and writing for children, Leon rebuffs any claims that her song is too hard to learn.
"I specialize in writing music which is, indeed, easy to sing, so I'm very geared into the singing abilities of untrained singers," she says. "Mr. DeBusk's song is extremely simplistic in its structure and basically only has one melody repeated over and over again."
While both bills await consideration by the House Rules Committee, Palmyra music teacher and songwriter Bob Clouse will watch what happens next closely. Two years after Charlottesvillian Adele Abrahamse's "The Old Dominion" died in committee as a possible state song, Clouse's "Oh, Virginia" was one of eight "grand finalists" among 340 entrants in the 1998-99 state-sponsored contest to become the Commonwealth's official tune.
After much listening, discussion and national media coverage, the selection process officially stalled on January 11, 2000. That's when the Virginia Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations officially declared they would postpone choosing a winner to "publicize the new arrangements of the eight grand finalists" and "receive additional comments about them from the general public."
Seven years later, Clouse is still waiting to hear if his song won.
"It would be an amazing honor to be known as the author of Virginia's state song," he says, "but I'm at the point where I'm just so over the whole thing. I've worried about it for so long, I just want someone to say either 'Bob, you're among the finalists,' or 'Bob, forget it.'"
Abrahmamse could not be reached for comment.
The state song stalemate is one legislators hope to solve in time for the Jamestown 400th anniversary celebration. Clouse says if that's going to happen, he sees two main issues that need to be resolved.
"There are a whole lot of people in Virginia who were upset they retired 'Carry Me Back to Old Virginia' because they don't go along with the fact that the song was racially insensitive," he says. "But it's not only racial insensitivity, but also the political ramifications of songs that were entered to replace it, including one by a very famous person, Jimmy Dean [of sausage and "Big, Bad John" fame whose song "Virginia" was also a finalist], that ground the whole thing to a halt."
Del. Rob Bell (R-Orange) confirms he's been in touch with Clouse about "Oh, Virginia," and says the newly introduced songs don't stand much chance of passing.
"The whole point of the state song subcommittee was to avoid taking them one by one," says Bell. "So I would be surprised if those bills were successful."
Bell also says that State Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Mount Solon) has told him that he hopes to revive the song selection contest he had originally chaired.
"He hopes to pick up the process and narrow it down to one or two soon," says Bell of Hanger. "We'd all like to have something in time for the Jamestown celebration."
As all things state song remain up in the air, only one thing is for sure. With less than five months until the Jamestown anniversary celebration, the clock is ticking to find a song to sing for when the state gets carried back to 400-year-old Virginia.
Log onto readthehook.com/podcasts to hear "Virginia, Ever Enshrined" and "Oh, Virginia," and decide for yourself if they've got the stuff to be the state song.
Carol Boyd Leon's "Virginia, Ever Enshrined" is one of two songs currently being considered by the General Assembly as the new state song.
COURTESY OF CAROL BOYD LEON
When he's not writing potential state songs, Thomas DeBusk is an attorney in Blacksburg. Among his clients is William Morva, who was the target of a two day manhunt in southwest Virginia this past August after allegedly escaping from prison and killing two people.
COURTESY OF THOMAS DEBUSK
With two new compositions being considered for "state song" status, Bob Clouse wants to make sure his "Oh, Virginia"– a grand finalist in the 1998-99 state song contest– is at least "in the mix."
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER