“The Despot’s Heel Is On Thy Shore”

maryland1Maryland State Senate President Mike Miller has asked that a state commission take a look at Maryland’s official state song to determine whether its lyrics should be changed or, more radically, that a new state song be adopted.

Why the fuss?  Well, Maryland’s state song — “Maryland, My Maryland” — while it wasn’t formally adopted as the state song until 1939, was written in 1861 by a loyal Confederate, who called for his home state to rise up and fight the Union.  It was penned by James Ryder Randall, a Baltimore-born journalist who was teaching in Lousiana in April 1861, when he heard the news that the first Union troops had marched through Baltimore on their way to protect Washington, D.C.  During the Civil War, Maryland was a border state, officially loyal to the Union — but in the early years of the Civil War, it was torn between Confederate and Union tendencies.  And no place was more torn than Baltimore, where residents rioted as the Union troops made their way through the city.

Learning of the riots, Randall immediately wrote — by candlelight, so the story goes — a nine-stanza poem, urging his home state to rebel and secede from the Union. “Come!” Randall urges several times, at one point beckoning Maryland to “spurn the Northern scum!”  (Rightly, it is still considered to be the nation’s “most martial poem.”)

With some minor tweaking (mainly by adding “My Maryland” at the refrain), it was quickly set to the tune of “Lauriger Horatius” (the same tune as “O Tannenbaum”) and became a Southern anthem — supposedly, Southern troops played the song as they marched into Maryland to begin their campaign at Antietam.  Given the ultimate turn of events, however, Randall is often called “the Poet Laureate of the Lost Cause.”

Here, then, is the opening stanza of Randall’s poem:

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
Maryland, My Maryland!
His torch is at thy temple door,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

The “despot” in the opening line is, of course, President Abraham Lincoln.  But Randall’s just warming up; by the sixth verse, the Confederacy — especially Maryland’s border state of Virginia — is pleading with its sister state to stand and be counted with the South:

Dear Mother! burst the tyrant’s chain,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Virginia should not call in vain,
Maryland, My Maryland!
She meets her sisters on the plain —
“Sic semper!” ’tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
Arise in majesty again,
Maryland! My Maryland!

Randall brings things to a fever pitch by the eighth stanza:

Thou wilt not yield the Vandal toll,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Thou wilt not crook to his control,
Maryland, My Maryland!
Better the fire upon thee roll,
Better the blade, the shot, the bowl,
Than crucifixion of the soul,
Maryland! My Maryland!

You get the idea — and hence Maryland’s dilemma, and Senate President Miller’s request that the song be looked at for modifications.  Some verses — including the fiery eighth stanza — can probably be read broadly, urging, for instance, Maryland to always rise up and overcome any “Vandal toll.”  Other verses, however, with their explicit references to Baltimore, Virginia, and other specific events, are more problematic.  In context, it’s a tough song for Maryland to embrace; Maryland was never a Confederate state, so the song can’t really be said to be memorializing a part of Maryland’s official past. 

In fact, its adoption as the state song, nearly eighty years after the Civil War, seems more a choice of convenience than careful thought — the result of a statehouse discussion that went something like this:

Senator:  We need a good state song.  What should it be?

Delegate: Are there any songs that have the word “Maryland” in the title?

Senator:  There’s “Maryland, My Maryland.”  What about that one?

Delegate:  What’s it about?

Senator:  I don’t know, but, see, it’s got the word “Maryland” in it.

Delegate:  Works for me.  I vote aye.

Many people pointed out a similar problem when Reagan, and other politicians, adopted the song “Born In The USA” as a campaign song:  Apart from the song title and refrain, the song itself — a portrait of the darker side of the American dream — isn’t a terribly appropriate one to be campaigning with.

Ten years ago, Virginia struggled with this issue as well, when they decided that the slave minstrel song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” — with its references to “darkeys” and “massa” — wasn’t the kind of image they wanted to project. Virginia shelved the tune, adopting it instead as the “state song emeritus,” and launched a contest to find a new state song. Unfortunately, in 2000, Virginia suspended the contest.  At the moment, then, Virginia has no state song.

Ultimately, I think this is a matter that does deserve some further thought. The hardest part will probably be coming up with words that rhyme with “Maryland.”

4 responses to ““The Despot’s Heel Is On Thy Shore”

  1. Barely fed
    Scary bend
    Marry Jen
    Fairy wench
    Rarely grand
    Hairy end
    and Jerry’s friend


  2. I shudder to think how a song might go that used “scary bend” and “hairy end” in the same verse…


  3. Oh Maryland, my Maryland,
    Don’t pay the ferryman.


  4. The original song is perfect fro the overbearing government entities we struggle with everyday.
    But if change is in order – here are a few stanzas to get things rolling.

    In wretched lock and with thundering hands,
    no Land of Pleasant of Living, Maryland my Maryland

    Wasteful spending from dictatorial bands,
    par for the course, in Maryland my Maryland

    Greased palms and payoffs abound, from the mountains to the sands,
    it’s the daily merry-go-round, oh Maryland my Maryland

    With higher office always in mind, gadfly travels to foreign lands
    greed and avarice in large supply, insidious Maryland my Maryland

    – SK