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A Song by Any Other Name

What’s in a name? In the case of the now-retired state song of Virginia, a lot. The tale of the twisting, somewhat torturous history of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” tells us a lot about Lost Cause mythology, half-hearted attempts to erase the stain of racism, and what true reconciliation requires.

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” was named the official state song of Virginia in 1940. By that point, the decades-long effort to recast the South’s secession from the Union and the ensuing Civil War as a glorious attempt to protect states’ rights and the southern way of life in the face of northern aggression had been wildly successful. The antebellum era was fully mythologized as a time of “moonlight and magnolias.” “Gone with the Wind,” the ultimate romanticization of plantation life and slavery, had just been released in December of 1939 and was a monster hit (it’s still the highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation).

As Jacqueline Sahagian writes in our new entry on the Virginia State Song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” embodied one of the key tenets of the Lost Cause narrative: that enslaved Blacks were “faithful slaves” who were loyal to their masters and longed to return to the days of slavery. Its lyrics, she writes, “sentimentalized life in the Old South and perpetuated a myth of Black nostalgia for life in slavery on plantations”:

“Carry me back to Old Virginny,

There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow,

There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,

There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go,

There’s where I labor’d so hard for old massa…”

It’s perhaps surprising, then, to learn that the song was written by a Black man—the famed minstrel composer and performer James A. Bland, who was known as “the Black Stephen Foster.” When he wrote the song in 1868, Bland titled the song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” But the General Assembly blanched at the slang for the state name and retitled the song—the only bit of controversy regarding the song that came up during the vote.

Bland himself is thought to have taken the title from a musically distinct song called “Oh! Carry Me Back to Ole Virginney,” also known as “De floating scow of old Virginia,” which is attributed to Charles White and was popular with Confederate troops during the Civil War. 

Bland’s “Carry Me Back” was proudly sung at state events until 1970, when L. Douglas Wilder, recently elected as the first African American to serve in the Senate of Virginia since Reconstruction, pointedly criticized it. In a dramatic example of how much representation matters, Wilder rose on the Senate floor to share with his colleagues how he and his wife felt when the song was sung at a legislative reception the previous evening—a reception they walked out of. It was, Wilder recalled in his memoir, the last time the song was played at a state function.

Thus began an ultimately doomed effort to make the song less offensive and salvage it as the state song. Between 1994 and 1997, the General Assembly got into the business of songwriting. It changed the song’s lyrics to remove Black dialect and references to slavery. “That’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go” was changed to “There’s where this old dreamer’s heart longs to go.” The line “That’s where I labor’d so hard for old massa” was changed to “There’s where I labor’d so hard for my loved ones.” 

It was to no avail. The entire conceit of the song was hopelessly objectionable, including the last verse where the “old darkey” dreams about being reunited with his enslavers—“massa and missis”—in heaven—“on that bright golden shore.” In 1997, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” was officially retired as the state song, beginning a nearly twenty-year saga to find a new state song, which you can read about here. Let’s just say it involved an official State Song Subcommittee, a State Song contest, Jimmy Dean, and charges of sausage bribery. But that’s another story.

(Image: The sheet music cover for “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” courtesy of Special Collections, University of Virginia.)

DISCUSSION

One thought on “A Song by Any Other Name

  1. Very interesting.
    As a child growing up in 1950s Florida, with a father who missed his home state of Virginia, I was taught this song, and it was a regular in our home. My sisters and I sang it almost any time we took a car ride to anywhere. Because my family was among the lower class working poor, and because I was a child, I didn’t understand the nuances of the song related to color. Until I was a teenager. I naively thought my dark-skinned but white father was one of the people the song was written about. His family certainly had few landowners and generally worked the fields of Virginia for others. Of course I was shocked and shamed when I finally figured out what we had been singing about for all those years, but oh my goodness, my father remained attached to his home state until the day he died. Thanks for a nice summary of the growth.

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