Countdown’s on for the next state song

The curtain is closing on the General Assembly’s chance to select a new state song for Virginia this legislative session.

Update #1 — February 15, 2015; 9:30 PM

The lyrics to “Our Great Virginia,’ according to the the lyricist himself, have changed slightly, as of February 9th. Replace “heartland” with “birthplace.”

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Original — February 10, 2015

By Cort Olsen

The curtain is closing on the General Assembly’s chance to select a new state song for Virginia this legislative session.

At the start of the session, three tunes were proposed as Virginia’s official song. But the bills that would designate a new state song are languishing in committees, and if they’re not acted on by Tuesday, they’re dead for this session.

The General Assembly has been holding auditions for a new state song since “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was retired in 1997 for its racist lyrics. The entries currently before the assembly are:

  • “Our Great Virginia,” by Mike Greenly – That’s the choice of House Bill 1472, sponsored by House Speaker Bill Howell, and Senate Bill 1128, introduced by Sen. Charles Colgan, D-Manassas. The song is a ballad that evokes “Shenandoah.”
  • “Virginia, the Home of My Heart,” by Susan Greenbaum – Del. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, is pushing for this song in HB 2203. It is a folk song by Greenbaum, a popular Richmond-based singer-songwriter.
  • “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” by Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett – Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, is seeking to designate this as the state song in SB 1362. It is an upbeat pop song by a pair of professional musicians, also based in Richmond.

The Senate bills are before the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee; the House bills have been assigned to the House Rules Committee. Neither panel has held hearings, and a crucial deadline is approaching: By Tuesday, any bill that has not been passed by its house of origin is dead.

If a song had the inside track, it might be “Our Great Virginia”: The House speaker rarely sponsors legislation – and when he does, it typically concerns weighty issues like the state budget. This is Howell’s only bill for 2015. Moreover, Howell chairs the House Rules Committee.

In an interview in his office, Howell said he was carrying HB 1427 as a favor to a friend – Dr. James I. Robertson, a history professor at Virginia Tech and executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission. Robertson explained in a telephone interview that he raised the idea at a meeting of state officials: “I brought the subject up that Virginia badly needs a state song. Several of the state’s legislators encouraged me to move forward with it.”

Robertson felt only one melody could make someone think of Virginia – the song “Shenandoah” (often called “Oh Shenandoah“). “It’s a folk song. It has been in Virginia for over 200 years. It’s so old, nobody knows who wrote it or where it started,” Robertson said. “It’s a part of Virginia’s culture and its folklore, so we had to use it.”

Through networking, Robertson contacted a lyricist in New York named Mike Greenly. Greenly, a former executive for Avon Products, is a freelance speechwriter for corporate executives. “I discovered I had a passion for writing song lyrics, because back when I was at Avon, we used to use songs for our sales meetings,” Greenly said.

He found that writing song lyrics was more fun than doing corporate marketing. He has since worked with two composer-partners to write songs for the public – and some of his songs, such as “I Will Carry You,” have landed on the Billboard Music Dance Charts.

Greenly has written lyrics for songs that have benefited charitable causes such as the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. He was the lyricist for “Always My Angel,” which honored the victims of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Greenly said a state song should express pride in one’s state. And when it comes to feeling proud about where they live, “I’m guessing Virginians would be at the upper end of the scale,” he said.

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Lyrics to “Our Great Virginia”

You’ll always be
our great Virginia.
You’re the heartland of the nation.
Where history
was changed forever.
Today, your glory stays,
as we build tomorrow
I fill with pride
at all you give us –
rolling hills, majestic mountains,
from the Shenandoah
to the Atlantic
rivers wide and forests tall,
all in one Virginia
For each of us
here in Virginia …
from farm to city dweller …
all of us, we stand together.
We’re yours, we all are yours –
across our great Virginia
You’ll always be our great Virginia

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VCU’s Capital News Service has created an online survey in which people can listen to the songs and vote for the one they think should be the next state song.

Watch each contender on YouTube:

Photo by: chrismar

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