The Virginia State Song

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" was the official state song of Virginia from 1940 to 1997. Written in 1878 by the famed Black minstrel performer James A. Bland, it was one of a number of popular minstrel songs that sentimentalized life in the Old South and perpetuated a myth of Black nostalgia for life in slavery on plantations. Legislation to replace "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" was introduced every year between 1988 and 1994. From 1994 to 1997, the Virginia General Assembly made lyric changes to remove Black dialect and references to slavery in an attempt to make the song less offensive. In 1997, the General Assembly demoted "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" from the official state song to "state song emeritus." In 2015, the General Assembly designated two official state songs: "Our Great Virginia," based on the folk song "Oh Shenandoah," was named the official traditional song, and "Sweet Virginia Breeze" was named the official popular song.  MORE...

 

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" was named the official state song of Virginia in 1940, during a period of intense promotion of Lost Cause ideology. The song, originally titled "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," was written in 1878 by famed Black minstrel composer and performer James A. Bland, who was known as "the Black Stephen Foster." Bland may have taken the title from a song called "Oh! Carry Me Back to Ole Virginney" that was popular with Confederate troops during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

The song was one of a number of popular minstrel songs that sentimentalized life in the Old South and perpetuated a myth of Black nostalgia for life in slavery on plantations. The song’s lyrics are sung from the perspective of a freedperson longing to return to the days of slavery:

Carry me back to old Virginia, There's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow, There's where the birds warble sweet in the springtime, There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go, There's where I labor’d so hard for old massa…

In 1970, L. Douglas Wilder began his term as the first African American elected to the Senate of Virginia since Reconstruction by criticizing "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" in a speech in which Wilder, a grandson of enslaved people, described how he and his wife felt upon hearing his colleagues sing the song at an official event. He wrote in his memoir, Son of Virginia (2015), "To my knowledge, after my objection, that song was not sung publicly at official events in Virginia."

Legislation to replace "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" was introduced every year between 1988 and 1994. From 1994 to 1997, the General Assembly made lyric changes to remove Black dialect and references to slavery in an attempt to make the song less offensive. The line "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." 

In 1997, in an acknowledgement that the song had become an embarrassment to the state, the General Assembly demoted "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" from the official state song to "state song emeritus," making Virginia the only state with an officially retired state song. The Senate of Virginia created a State Song Subcommittee, which initiated a contest for Virginians to write a new state song. The subcommittee received 339 entries and over seventeen hours of music to consider. 

The state song competition received national attention when it was disrupted by Jimmy Dean, former country singer and founder of the well-known sausage company. Dean, who won a Grammy Award in 1961 for his song "Big Bad John," and his wife Donna Meade Dean launched a campaign to make their composition "Virginia" the new state song, but were accused of bribery when it was discovered that Dean had made campaign donations to Senator Stephen H. Martin, who was a member of the State Song Subcommittee. When letters from children endorsing Dean’s song came pouring in to the subcommittee,it was evident that Dean had donated sausages to their schools, which raised more questions about his influence on the contest. As a result, the contest collapsed and no winner was chosen.

In 2006, the General Assembly, under pressure to choose a new state song before the four hundredth anniversary celebration of Jamestown in 2007, named the traditional folk song "Oh Shenandoah" the interim state song. However, some felt "Shenandoah" was not an appropriate choice for the state song because it is not about Virginia—the song’s narrative is from the point of view of fur traders traveling on the Missouri River. Although the title does not refer to Virginia’s Shenandoah River or the Shenandoah Valley, Virginians had adopted the song as their own for generations.

Eventually, the problem with "Oh Shenandoah" was solved by keeping the melody and giving the song new lyrics about Virginia. In 2015, the General Assembly designated two official state songs: "Our Great Virginia," the reworked "Oh Shenandoah," was named the official traditional song, and "Sweet Virginia Breeze," a 1980 song by Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett that frequently had been discussed as a possible candidate, was named the official popular song. 

Time Line

  • 1878 - Black minstrel performer James A. Bland writes “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”
  • 1940 - The Virginia General Assembly designates “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” as the state’s official song, changing “Virginny” to “Virginia.”
  • February 10, 1970 - L. Douglas Wilder makes the inappropriateness of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” the subject of his first speech as the Virginia General Assembly’s first Black member since Reconstruction.
  • 1994 - The Virginia General Assembly makes changes to the lyrics of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” in an attempt to make it less offensive.
  • 1997 - “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” is designated Virginia’s “state song emeritus.”
  • 1998 - The Virginia Senate State Song Subcommittee initiates a contest for Virginians to compose a new state song. The contest is disrupted by alleged bribery attempts by Jimmy Dean, the former country singer and founder of the sausage company, and is never completed.
  • 2006 - The Virginia General Assembly names “Oh Shenandoah” the interim state song.
  • 2015 - “Our Great Virginia,” a reworked “Oh Shenandoah,” is named the official traditional song, and “Sweet Virginia Breeze” is designated the official popular song.

References

Further Reading
Chude-Sokei, Louis Onuorah. The Last "Darky": Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006.
Lhamon, W. T., Jr. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Lott, Eric. Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Sahagian, J. The Virginia State Song. (2020, December 16). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Virginia_State_Song.

  • MLA Citation:

    Sahagian, Jacqueline. "The Virginia State Song." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 16 Dec. 2020. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: October 16, 2020 | Last modified: December 16, 2020


Contributed by Jacqueline Sahagian, a doctoral student in U.S. history at the University of Virginia, whose work focuses on popular and vernacular music of the United States.