He wants MD song tuned
BY Lori Montgomery
ANNAPOLIS, Md. - At 9, Ben Meiselman had no idea what he was singing.
Onstage with his classmates for a fourth-grade assembly, the boy innocently
denounced Abraham Lincoln as a "despot" and called the Union Army "Northern
Parents clapped. But Ben's father never forgot the sight of all those
black and brown students, not to mention his Jewish son, belting out the
Confederate call to arms that serves as Maryland state song. Last fall,
when Ben needed a topic for a school civics project, his dad proposed
a campaign to deep-six the anthem. Ben agreed and, with two classmates,
persuaded delegate Peter Franchot to introduce a bill. This week Ben Meiselman
will ask the General Assembly to strike "Maryland, My Maryland" from the
list of official symbols that represent the Free State to the world.
The words are dense and hard to understand. And basically they tell Maryland
to secede from the Union," said Meiselman, now 15 and a high school sophomore
"Most parts you can't understand. And the parts I can understand, I don't
At first glance, his proposal might be dismissed as the latest in a long
line of state-symbol, requests paraded annually through the capital Of
Annapolis. Thanks partly to the chums of earnest school-children, lawmakers
have designated such things as a state dinosaur (Astrodon johnstoni),
a state drink (milk), and a sport (jousting).
But Meiselmans campaign has more in common with the recent battle to remove
the from the South Carolina State House dome andearlier controversies
over references to"darkies" in Florida's and Virginia's state songs.
That debate is passionate in Maryland, which remained loyal to the Union
only after Lincoln imprisoned much of the General Assembly to head off
a secession vote. Sons and husbands in many prominent Maryland families
fought for the South, and the last time a state lawmaker Vied to tamper
with "Maryland, My Maryland," his office received death threats.
"Maryland is not just the Maryland we see in the Washington suburbs,"
said Howard Denis, a former Republican state senator -In Southern Maryland
and the Eastern Shore, slavery was the underpinning of the economy. Out
there, Lincoln didn't get too many votes."
"Maryland" is no nostalgic ode to fallen soldiers or plantation days.
The lyrics were written in 1861, days after the shots had been fired in
downtown Baltimore. A secessionist mob had attacked a regiment of Massachusetts
soldiers changing trains en route to Washington to join the Union Army,
and some rioters were killed. James Ryder Randall, a Maryland resident
working as a teacher in Louisiana, surveyed the events and penned the
poem calling his state to battle.
"The words actually get worse as you go along," said Meiselman's
father, Neal, a Maryland native.
In addition to "despot," Lincoln is cast as a "tyrant" and a "vandal."
Maryland's loyalty to the Union Is compared to "crucifixion of the soul."
In a final verse, Randall imagines Maryland rising for the South and spurning
"the Northern scum" ‹ Southern code words for troops of German and Irish
immigrants, according to Jean Baker, an American historian at Goucher
College in Towson, Md.
Randall's poem, set to the tune of "0 Tannenbaum," joined "Dixie" as a
popular Confederate much. Decades later, for reasons that remain a mystery,
the 1939 General Assembly moved to adopt "Maryland, My Maryland" as the
official state song.
There it stayed until 1980. Then Denis, inspired by a chat with a former
Senate president who refused to sing the anthem in deference to his Union
ancestors, proposed its repeal. "We have the only state song that calls
for the violent overthrow of the government. I thought it would be a tiny
corrective bill" Denis said. But the bill was shot down in at least
State historians remain divided on the matter. Some, like Baker, say it's
"an insult" to Maryland residents who fought with the Union Army and wouldn't
want to be associated with the goals of the Confederacy. Others, like
Edward Papenfuse, the state's archivist, argue that the song is part of
Maryland's Civil War legacy and should be preserved as an artifact of
Maryland histornian Robert Brugger recently emailed state lawmakers, saying,
"What kind of history do we have if we whitewash it?" The measure, House
Bill 1057, proposes no replacement
"By making it not the official state song, that doesn't mean it's not
part of our history," said Ben Meiselman. "People can still look at it
and say, 'Oh,
that used to be the Maryland state song.'
"It just means it doesn't represent us anymore," he said. "I don't think
I want it representing me."