State song: 'Shenandoah' tide rolls on


"Shenandoah" is a fine tune. On that point, few will disagree.

However, depending on who you believe, it's based on the Shenandoah Valley, a Native American tribal chief, or life on the Western frontier. With all the confusion, is it worthy of designation as Virginia's state song?

"'Shenandoah' is a beautiful song," says Sen. Charles Colgan. "I'll admit that the lyrics are somewhat confusing, but we can work through that." The Manassas Democrat's resolution to name "Shenandoah" the interim state song of Virginia passed the Senate in January.

The presence of a measure tapping "Shenandoah" as the state song– and the affirmative vote in the Senate– came as a bit of a surprise to folks who have been monitoring the nearly decade-old drama involving the process for replacing "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," which was retired as the state song in 1997.

"It kind of caught everybody by surprise," says Bob Clouse. "There was nothing on this for the longest time, and then all of the sudden, the news was that 'Shenandoah' was going to be our state song." Clouse is a Palmyra composer whose "Oh, Virginia" was selected in 2004 as one of eight finalists in a process set up by the bipartisan Virginia Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

"They're digging back way into the past to replace a song that was also from way back in the past," says Robbin Thompson, whose 1970s rock hit, "Sweet Virginia Breeze," penned with Steve Bassett, was also on the list of finalists.

"That says something to me about the process," Thompson adds.

"The Senate seems to have moved fairly quickly on this," says Valley delegate Steve Landes. "I'm just not sure that the public has been fully brought into the process."

As chair of the Republican caucus in the House of Delegates, Landes will have a chance to officially weigh in on the state-song issue later this month.

"Most of us," Landes says, "think that it's been a long time since we had a state song, and it would be nice to have one. But what does interim mean? Does that mean until we decide to address the issue? Does it mean next year? The year after? I just don't know."

Colgan says his goal is to put a state song in place in time for the state's commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown next year.

"The interim tag is a recognition of the fact that we might want to revisit this in the future," says Colgan. "It leaves the door open to look at this again down the road. It's important now because we're getting ready to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown. We need a state song."

Whether "Shenandoah" is the right choice for the interim or for a longer period raises the issue of the song's geographical references.

"I'm not sure 'Shenandoah' is the appropriate even interim song," says Landes. "My understanding is that the lyrics refer to places like Missouri.

Indeed, Jeff Place, head archivist for the Smithsonian's folk-life collection, says "Shenandoah" is a 19th-century Atlantic sea chantey that was later used on boats on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

"That's why you hear the line in the song about crossing the wide Missouri. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Shenandoah River or the Shenandoah Valley," Place says.

Place, a Virginia native, admits that he was surprised to learn that the song he remembered singing as a child on family trips to the Blue Ridge wasn't actually about the valley or river he was going to visit.

"Some people have asked me, 'Well, at this point, everybody thinks it's about Virginia, so what does it matter?' But," Place says, "if you ask somebody in Missouri what it's about, would they say Virginia? I seriously doubt it."

Country music legend Jimmy Dean– whose "Virginia" made the cut two years ago among the finalists to replace "Carry Me Back"– sees politics at play.

"'Shenandoah' is a gorgeous song," he says, "but it has nothing to do with Virginia. Our song was written about a place where we live and that we love, and we tried to capture a little bit of the beauty and the strength of the Commonwealth."

"I think the reason they're going with 'Shenandoah' is that it's safe," says Dean's wife, Donna, who co-wrote "Virginia." "It won't get anybody in trouble with their constituents. And nobody can get mad. It's a beautiful song."

"Shenandoah" did not make the 2004 list of finalists, but Thompson– who balked at the advisory commission's request that he sign over the rights to his song in the event it were chosen– says politicians now consider it a safe choice politically.

"It's an old, old song, so there aren't any issues with ownership," he says.

As for Clouse, he just wants an answer.

"It's like we're in a close horse race that came down to a photo finish," he says. "There are eight horses in the picture with their tongues hanging out trying to get to the finish tape, and they've been frozen in the frame for eight years."

Maybe those sailors were dreaming of Old Rag Mountain?