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The state song of Maryland, adopted in 1939, is “Maryland, My Maryland,” set to the music of the classic holiday song “O, Tannenbaum.” The song started as a nine-stanza poem written by James Ryder Randall in 1861, during the Civil War. When it was written, it became very popular, as Randall used the piece to express his sympathies to the Confederate cause. Many years later, it became wrought with controversy due to the negative sentiments expressed in it towards Northerners.
James Ryder Randall was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1839 to a wealthy family, and was tutored by the same teacher who taught Edgar Allen Poe. He spent the early part of his adult life teaching English at a college in Louisiana, where he was living when he heard about the mounting tensions in his home state. Maryland was right on the edge of the North and the South, with the Mason-Dixon line separating it from Pennsylvania. Its proximity to the North made the area particularly tense during the early days of the Civil War. On April 19, 1961, a riot broke out between Confederate sympathizers and Union soldiers, killing 11 civilians in what historians agree was the first bloodshed of the war. One of the civilians was a childhood friend of Randall's, and the poet wrote what would become the state song of Maryland to express his heartbreak.
During the Civil War and for many years following, it was common for both Northerners and Southerners to express ill sentiments toward one aother through poems, songs, and stories. The Civil War claimed over 600,000 lives from both sides, and hostilities remained even after the war officially ended. As generations passed, those hostilities began to lessen. Throughout the late 20th century and early 21st century, several bills appeared before the state senate to change the state song of Maryland to something less controversial, but none of them passed.
The controversy surrounding the state song of Maryland stems from the derogatory terms Randall used to describe Northerners and Abraham Lincoln, who was president during the time of the Civil War. These terms include “despot,” “Northern scum” and, in relation to Lincoln, “tyrant.” Efforts to change the controversial lyrics while keeping the overall sentiment have failed as well. Historians argue that the poem, including the words that offend, is part of Maryland’s and the United States’ history.
After writing the poem that became the state song of Maryland, James Ryder Randall went on to write numerous other poems about the Civil War, and later turned to writing religious poetry. Of all the poems he wrote, none became as famous as “Maryland, My Maryland.” Randall died in 1907 in Georgia.