NEWS- Reprise: Senator to revive state song search
In 1999, when the competition to select Virginia's state song stalled at eight finalists, hopes of replacing "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" seemed to be fading. A 2006 state senate resolution almost made the folk traditional "Shenandoah" the interim choice, and three new songs being introduced and voted down in the General Assembly this year.
The debate continues to play like a broken record, but with the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement fast approaching, State Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Mount Solon)– chair of the original State Song Contest– intends to put the matter to rest.
"I want to get it resolved this year, while we're making a big to-do about celebrating pride in Virginia," says Hanger. "We won't be able to make the selection until 2008, because the General Assembly has to vote on it, but hopefully this year we can work through the process."
Though he's unsure exactly how that process will work, Hanger predicts that a public announcement "in the spring" will herald an Internet-based vote.
"In 1999, there was no mechanism set up to prevent someone from spending all day voting for their song," he explains. "Now we have an opportunity to conduct an informal vote among a significant number of Virginians in a way that's fair."
Hanger also says the contest will pick up where it left off with the eight finalists– but won't necessarily be limited to those tunes.
"Those eight songs still have to be our primary focus," he says, "but if someone came up with the song that was so outstanding, obviously we'd have to add it."
One of those original eight was "Oh, Virginia" by Palmyra music teacher Bob Clouse, who says that should it go to a popular vote, he likes his song's chances.
"When the state song committee was choosing its original 50 for consideration," explains Clouse, "mine was the only one to get a vote from all 10 committee members. At that point, one of them even got up and half-seriously said, 'Based on this vote, we could make a decision today.'"
In a January interview, Clouse blamed the stalemate on politics, especially the entrance of a song by noted singer and sausage namesake Jimmy Dean, who co-wrote finalist "Virginia" with his wife, Donna. Dean has donated to the campaigns of several Virginia state legislators, including $2,250 to State Senator Stephen Martin (R-Chesterfield) while Martin was a member of the State Song Subcommittee, making him Martin's fourth-biggest individual contributor in the last decade.
"I've donated a lot of money to a lot of different people and will again, but it has nothing to do with that song," says Dean. "That song will stand on its own merits."
Dean, who won a Grammy for his 1961 country hit, "Big, Bad John," blames the delay on the folks running the contest.
"It got into the legislature, and they just hemmed and hawed," he says. "It was political because all these legislators are afraid of their constituency, and it's hard to get a straight answer out of them."
Such political rancor is why Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett were reluctant to enter their 1977 hit, "Sweet Virginia Breeze."
"I appreciate all the people who came up to me and said it should be a candidate, and it would be an honor for it to be the state song," Bassett says, "but when I saw how this could get hung up, I didn't have much interest."
Thompson says the duo was urged to enter by the Roanoke Times. "They insinuated that if I didn't enter it, they were thinking about entering it," says Thompson. "So I figured it should come from the authors and that after that, we wouldn't get involved because we wanted the song to speak for itself."
But Thompson eventually did get involved– over a legal matter.
"The state took it for granted that the authors would just turn over all the rights to the song," he says. "That's when I started going to meetings."
Thompson and Bassett thought they had reached a suitable compromise after doing a bit of research.
"We offered the state the deal that Rogers and Hammerstein offered the state of Oklahoma for the rights to the song 'Oklahoma,'" Thompson recalls. "We will allow you to use our song for a dollar, and you can use it for anything pertaining to the state. But if someone records the song for profit, we as the authors should receive our rightful royalty for it."
Apparently the committee wasn't keen on the idea. "I remember one committee member got all upset and said, 'You just give us that song, and get yourself a new one,'" Thompson says.
Whether it ever gets the official designation, Bassett says he's heard from thousands of Virginians who have already adopted "Sweet Virginia Breeze" as their personal state song. But at this point, Thompson says all he wants is for the Commonwealth to learn its lesson. "All of the bureaucracy has taken a little bit of the shine off the honor," he says. "I hope it doesn't end that way."
Or, as Dean puts it, "When politics enters, out goes reality."
State Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Mount Solon) is hopeful Virginia could have a state song by this time next year.
STATE SENATE OF VIRGINIA
Country legend and sausage magnate Jimmy Dean co-wrote "Virginia" with his wife, Donna, for the original State Song competition in 1998.
COURTESY OF JIMMY DEAN ENTERPRISES
Robbin Thompson has sung his 1977 hit, "Sweet Virginia Breeze," the world over, including a 2001 at the Great Wall of China.
COURTESY OF ROBBIN THOMPSON