- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2000

Virginia's state song, stalled in a selection process beset with accusations of favoritism and mismanagement, will not be chosen for at least another year because the committee charged with the decision did not meet in 2000.

The committee which has missed three self-imposed deadlines, stretching back to 1998 has no plans to meet until sometime after the legislative session ends in February.

The chairman of the committee, state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., Augusta Republican, said he just hasn't been able to focus on the song.

"We haven't pushed the issue the past several months just a lot of other things going on legislatively," Mr. Hanger said. "I just took the position that maybe we've reached a certain plateau and decided to rest a little bit."

That plateau is eight finalists, which the committee of lawmakers and music teachers culled in 1999 from more than 330 mostly original compositions submitted in the open call for a new song.

But it's been a long, hard climb to that point from the day in 1997 when lawmakers retired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" because critics of the 19th-century lyrics, which talk about "old massa" and call slaves "darky," considered it offensive.

Some folks think the whole process should just halt without the committee ever meeting again.

"They shouldn't, quite frankly, because all of the songs that have been mentioned nobody will ever sing, or hear, or care about," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat. He said the best songs don't come from contests; they come from popular songs already out there, like "Oklahoma!," from the musical of the same name.

Mr. Saslaw was one of the biggest critics, warning lawmakers they were in for a spectacle that has included charges of political favoritism and the scene of lawmakers sitting in an official committee meeting, hosting a "Gong Show"-style audition two years ago.

"I told Emmett, 'You are beating a dead horse to get a song that will be universally accepted in Virginia,' " Mr. Saslaw said.

Mr. Hanger, though, laughs at Mr. Saslaw's attitude.

"In all fairness to Senator Saslaw, I thought he just doesn't appreciate music," he said. "I haven't thought one time we should let it die."

Still, for now it looks like Mr. Saslaw's prediction of chaos in the process is accurate.

Several of the semifinalists who didn't make the cut to the final eight songs have charged that the fix was in. Sausage king Jimmy Dean and his wife, big political donors whose recipients included members of the committee, submitted a song to the competition.

Some also argued the criteria the committee used to narrow the field were arbitrary or unspecified, and demanded the committee start all over.

Committee members dismissed the critics as "sore losers."

Even after the committee recommends a song, it still must go through the legislative process and be approved by both houses as well as signed by the governor.

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" was given the status of "state song emeritus" in 1997. It was written by James Bland, a free black New Yorker who penned more than 700 songs after quitting Howard University to become a minstrel. The state adopted it as its official song in 1940.

Mr. Hanger had promised that the committee would come up with a recommendation by the upcoming session, and the state song Web page, at www.vipnet.org/song/ song.html, still makes the same promise.

But lawmakers don't seem to be eager to push the process.

Said Speaker of the House S. Vance Wilkins Jr., a Republican from Amherst, "It would be nice, but it's not necessary; it's something they'll get around to when they do."

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