Virginia hasn’t had a state song since 1997. It’s a deficiency James Robertson, a retired Virginia Tech history professor, has found increasingly untenable.
“We’re a mother state,” the 84-year-old says. “We began the whole country. America planted its seed at Jamestown. Virginia should be the lead in everything, and the fact that we lack a basic ingredient -- a state song -- I find that deplorable.”
With some encouragement from House Speaker William Howell and a few other lawmakers, Robertson commissioned a songwriter to set fresh, Virginia-focused lyrics to the tune of “Oh Shenandoah,” a folk classic often associated with the state but lacking in lyrical references to the commonwealth.
Robertson liked what came back. Apparently, so did Howell, who proposed legislation to make “Our Great Virginia” the state’s official song.
The move sidesteps years of debate over the issue that goes back to the legislature’s 1997 decision to retire the former state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” which contains lyrics that have drawn fire for references to laboring for “massa” and “this old darkey.”
An official contest in 1998 to pick a new song garnered 339 entries, from which a subcommittee of lawmakers narrowed the field to eight finalists. But then things got weird. One entrant sued the state, raising allegations of impropriety after it came to light that musicians Jimmy and Donna Dean had donated to the campaign of a committee member. As a result, the entrant claimed, his entry didn’t receive due consideration.
The committee disbanded without picking a winner, leaving Virginia to stand with New Jersey as the only state without a song. Neighbor West Virginia has four state songs, while Massachusetts has a state song, a folk song, a ceremonial march, an ode and a polka.
While various lawmakers have raised the issue through the years, the proposals never gained much traction. With Howell carrying the bill, the effort could gain momentum. But while the song is refreshingly free of racist references, it’s likely to generate some controversy.
Robbin Thompson, who co-wrote “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” a catchy beach-music number that was a finalist in the 1998 contest, says “Our Great Virginia” sounds contrived.
“It’s a nice enough song,” he says, “but it sounds like somebody said, ‘I think I’ll try to write something that someone in Virginia will like.’”
The song is by Mike Greenly, a corporate speech and songwriter in New York. Indeed, he says he wrote the lyrics with goal of “inspiring anyone who cares about Virginia.”
A native of North Carolina, Greenly came up with the lyrics through a combination of research and interviews with Robertson.
“What I have learned about Virginians is that it seems Virginians feel a special degree of specialness and affinity for their state -- more than the average,” Greenly says.
Robertson says Greenly’s work captured the sentiment he was hoping for, and that when he debuted the song last year during the General Assembly’s special session on a portable CD player he brought to state Sen. John Edwards’ office, the reaction was unanimously positive.
“We started playing it,” Robertson says, “and actually a crowd formed outside his office with the music started echoing out that way.”
Erin Freeman, the director of choral activities at Virginia Commonwealth University and the director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, oversaw a performance of the song in the rotunda of the Capitol last year. She said the audience found the performance moving.
“It was impactful,” she says.
But she isn’t sure whether it should become enshrined in code as the state song. “It’s a difficult question to answer,” she says. “Everyone will have individually different feelings about what represents the state.”