RICHMOND, Va. The traditional folk song “Shenandoah,” Bud Robertson says, has been “with me for a long, long time.”
The 1965 Civil War film, “Shenandoah” – Robertson, of course, is a Civil War scholar – really hooked Robertson on the song, which is featured prominently in the movie that stars Jimmy Stewart in a story about a Virginia family. In the years since, Robertson has made a point of using the song for public programs whenever he could.
“I kept thinking how beautiful it is,” Robertson said, “and I’ve just always felt ‘Shenandoah’ is the song that makes you think instinctively think of this state.”
The problem with “Shenandoah,” which achieved popularity in the 1800s, is that while the song might make you think of Virginia, the lyrics don’t mention the state – although the Missouri River gets a good ride. And the song might not even be about Virginia in the first place, depending on which interpretation of the song’s origins you choose to believe.
So in retirement, Robertson, alumni distinguished professor emeritus of history at Virginia Tech, has launched “a one-man crusade,” as he put it, to pair the lovely melody of “Shenandoah” – the song is in the public domain -- with new lyrics to create something that Virginia has been lacking for going on two decades: an official state song. The previous state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” which contained way-out-of-date lyrics that grew to be seen as racially offensive, was banished, as my former colleague Steve Clark wrote in 1997, to “the Isle of Emeritus.”
Years of legislative hearings and hundreds of song submissions later, the Virginia General Assembly passed on selecting a new state song. No one heard anything that really grabbed them, or they couldn’t agree on a choice anyway. Or maybe it was some of both. The result: It’s been pretty quiet on the state song front for years.
So, why would a historian of such renown as Robertson dare venture into not-always-friendly political waters for the cause of a song?
“Virginia should be the leader in everything, but we’re one of only two states that doesn’t have a state song,” Robertson said, noting New Jersey is the other, during a phone interview Friday from his home on the Northern Neck. “A state song is natural, like a state bird or a state flower.
“Virginia has to have a state song. We have more tradition than anybody else, and the absence of a state song just becomes more glaring.”
Robertson has talked about the need for a state song for several years and how he was looking for new lyrics for “Shenandoah,” but nothing that anyone submitted to him seemed to work.
His quest eventually led to Mike Greenly, a lyricist (and corporate speechwriter, author and marketing executive) who happily accepted Robertson’s invitation to write words to the melody of “Shenandoah.” Though he lives in New York, Greenly was raised in Beaufort, S.C., and say she has “a Southerner’s heart,” as well as great admiration for Virginia. He was not compensated for his work.
The result is “Our Great Virginia,” which became available on iTunes on Thursday and was posted to YouTube at the same time. That version was arranged by composer Jim Papoulis and features the vocals of Sophia Miller and the Fairfax Choral Society Concert Choir under the direction of Patrick F. Vaughn.
There’s a link to the song on TimesDispatch.com. Go listen for yourself.
In a phone interview Friday afternoon, Greenly called the endeavor “a great pleasure and privilege” – he was particularly touched by Robertson’s determination to see this through -- and also a bit of a challenge.
“He wanted to do a song that would appeal to everybody,” Greenly said, meaning special emphasis on the vast heritage of Virginia without phrasing that might be seen as exclusionary. “I think we’ve got a song that everybody who lives in Virginia will find something to embrace and relate to.”
Robertson believes “Our Great Virginia” is a winner. He’s hoping for a “groundswell” – he’s played the song at several recent events to positive response – and he said he already has support among key legislators. He plans to make a lobbying push after the November elections, and, in a perfect scenario, the song would be adopted early next year by the General Assembly.
You can like the song or not, but you cannot doubt Robertson’s devotion to Virginia.
“I love this state so much,” he said.