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What Is the State Song of Virginia?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 17, 2024
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There is no official state song of Virginia, though the state does have an interim state song and a state song emeritus. From 1940 to 1997, the state song was "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny", though it has since been retired and is now the state song emeritus because of controversy over its lyrics. Though other state songs have been proposed since the 1970s, including "The Old Dominion", as of 2012, Virginia remains one of only two states in the US that has no official state song, with the other being New Jersey.

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" is the work of an African-American musician and composer, James A. Bland (1854-1911). Bland, a native of New York, wrote the song in 1878. Sung in the voice of a former slave, the song is a nostalgic description of the natural beauty of Virginia. It also paints a nostalgic picture of life under slavery; the slave speaks fondly of "Massa" and hopes to be reunited with his former owners in the afterlife.

Lawmakers in Virginia officially adopted the song "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," in 1940, formally making it the state's song. Despite controversy and pushes for another state song as early as the 1970s, the song continued as the state song until 1997. One notable effort was the proposal for "The Old Dominion" to be the new state song, but the legislation did not make it past the committee level. In 1997, criticism of the song came to a head. Critics had long objected to the song for several reasons related to its portrayal of African-Americans, and many felt that its rosy depiction of slavery was inappropriate, as was its use of the word "darkey," a racial slur against African-Americans.

In 1997, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" ceased to be the state song of Virginia and became its state song emeritus. The state government announced a contest to select a new state song. By July 1999, eight finalists had made the cut. The search for a new state song stalled in 1999 though, and the contest was officially suspended in 2000.

Following the suspension of the contest, legislators continued to recommend new state songs. In 2006, the Virginia state Senate proposed "Shenandoah," also called "Oh Shenandoah," as the state song of Virginia. The legislation naming it state song failed to pass the General Assembly. Critics pointed out that the lyrics were difficult and in fact referred more to areas outside Virginia than to Virginia itself. In the absence of an official state song, some Virginians still consider "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" the state song of Virginia.

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Discussion Comments

By MissDaphne — On Dec 15, 2011

@ElizaBennett - I agree with you, it's hard to believe, but absolutely real. Teaching middle school in the Deep South, I encountered students who were confused by a play we were reading about Harriet Tubman - because they thought that really most slaves were pretty happy. So why would they want to run away?

I remember looking to the song issue when it was news. Apparently, it was written by an educated African American man who had been born free, and some people think it's not meant to be taken literally. It could be satire on the difficult conditions facing newly freed slaves, who had so much trouble finding work that slavery could almost be appealing in contrast, or it could be ironically expressing the feelings that some whites *wanted* freed slaves to have.

Not that that's why some people defended it. I think it's just hard for people to look horrible things in the eye, and so some Southerners still want to romanticize the days of hoop skirts and cotton plantations and think that everyone was happy.

By holloway — On Dec 14, 2011

Well, essentially, yes. You can find the lyrics online, and they do present an idealized picture of the antebellum South.

It's hard to tell, but I don't get the impression that defenders of the song were actually in favor of the content as such; they were just attached to it because it was traditional. Sometimes when something has been around for a long time, people develop a blind spot to its negative aspects.

In any event, as you can see, the movement against it prevailed in the end.

By ElizaBennett — On Dec 14, 2011

What do they mean by a "rosy depiction of slavery"? Like in Gone with the Wind, where the slaves are all smiley and devoted to their masters? It seems hard to believe that people in such recent history would actually have been defending it -- that's what "debate" means, right? That people were in favor of *keeping* a state song about happy slaves?

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