Fall 1997

A Catching Tune JMU song's a Favorite for Virginia State Anthem

by Fred Hilton

Inez Roop ('35) would like to put Wayland's song back in the running.

Photo by Jim Kelly

Former history professor and Old Virginia lyricist John W. Wayland

Not too long from now, maybe in a year or so, Virginians could be whistling a new tune. Or an old one: Old Virginia, a strong contender for Virginia's official state song, is a piece of history JMU folks can call their own.

Virginia has been without a state song since early this year when the General Assembly retired Carry Me Back to Old Virginia because its slavery-related lyrics were regarded as racist.

Into the void former JMU Board of Visitors member Inez G. Roop ('35) would like to propel Old Virginia, which was written in 1911 by one of JMU's original faculty members. Its chances are strong, as they were in 1940 when it almost became the Virginia state song. It finished second in a vote by the General Assembly that chose Carry Me Back.

The runner-up's lyrics were written by John W. Wayland, a Shenandoah County native who was head of the history department at the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Harrisonburg when it opened in 1909. The music was written by William H. "Will" Reubush who taught music at Shenandoah College and Conservatory of Music, which was then in the Rockingham County town of Dayton. (Shenandoah College is now Shenandoah University in Winchester.)

Old Virginia became popular quickly. It was sung widely throughout Virginia in the '20s, '30s and '40s - particularly in public schools, where so many Madison graduates were teaching. JMU's first president, Julian A. Burruss, had copies of the song printed and sent to anyone who requested them. By 1938, about a quarter of a million copies of the song had been distributed.

Wayland himself was a popular teacher in the Normal School. It's a good thing: Since he was the only history teacher in the early years of the school, every student had at least one class with him. He also wrote Blue Stone Hill, which was Madison's alma mater until 1931.

Wayland was a showman, too. He frequently gave solo renditions of Old Virginia and would often perform songs connected to historical events for his students. He was also apparently a bit of a character. At a school Halloween party, he once won first prize by singing his recipe for biscuits to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

Old Virginia

"Tell me of a land that's fair,
With the smile of heaven there,
Of a land that's e'er the dearest as I roam;
Where the hills encircling rise,
And blue mountains kiss the skies -
O that land is Old Virginia,
And my home!"

Tell me of a land where glows
Love's first blush upon the rose,
Where the lily springs the whitest
from the loam:
Where the "Daughter of the Sky"
And the James go rolling by -
O that land is Old Virginia,
And my home!

Birthland of story, Homeland of glory,
Thousands of voices are singing to thee;
With garlands fairest, With heart gems rarest,
We crown Virginia, sweet land of the free.

Tell me of a land that gave
Ever bravest of the brave,
First to hail the star of freedom in the gloam;
Where the deeds that men may do
Prove them truest of the true -
O that land is Old Virginia,
And my home!

Tell me of a land where love,
Fix'd in woman's heart doth prove,
Best of all the gifts to man 'neath heaven's dome;
Ah! the angels there awhile
Banish care with beauty's smile -
O that land is Old Virginia,
And my home!

In 1931, Wayland retired from the faculty of what was then called the State Teachers College at Harrisonburg to devote his full time to research and writing. He died in 1962 at the age of 89 while shoveling snow. Wayland Hall, a JMU residence hall, was named in his honor in 1958.

Roop, who lives in Richmond, is one of the strongest proponents of Old Virginia as the new state song. As a State Teachers College student, she was a four-year member of the College Glee Club. "The Glee Club consisted of 30 or 35 girls - a bus load - and we traveled all over the state," she says. "We usually sang in high schools or other places arranged by alumnae in the area. We closed our concerts with Old Virginia and it was always a big hit." She still knows the song by heart.

Shortly after Carry Me Back to Old Virginia was retired, Roop contacted Steve Clark, columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, about her crusade on behalf of Old Virginia . Clark quickly became an Old Virginia fan and wrote a couple of columns about the song and its history. In one column, he offered to send a copy of the song's sheet music to anyone who requested it.

The response was, to say the least, overwhelming. Clark received almost 700 requests for the music. Veteran Times-Dispatch Washington correspondent "Charlie McDowell once told me that if you got six or seven people to respond to a column, that was a 'flood of letters'," Clark says. "Well, if that's a 'flood,' then this was a flood of biblical proportions."

The response was "absolutely, without a doubt" the biggest reaction Clark has ever had to one of his columns - more than double the old record for responses.

"I had wonderful comments from all sorts of people," Clark says. "One lady in her 90s called up and sang the song to me over the telephone. That was a wonderful experience."

Although the General Assembly hasn't yet taken any formal action toward finding a new state song, there will certainly be some competition for the honor. Other than Old Virginia, the only song that's received much mention is Virginia, written by Texas-born country singer/sausage magnate Jimmy Dean and his wife. One legislator has praised the Dean song for its "catchy tune and singability."

Clark isn't too crazy about a Virginia state song written by a Texas native. "Besides," he says, "a state song needs to be a little bit old fashioned. It has to have a hymnal quality. That's what Old Virginia has."

Amen.

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