Back in Old Virginny

It’s so quiet, so dark, so Virginia…so not New Jersey. There are at least six thousand stars in the sky – about 5,990 more than I can typically see in the night sky of Central New Jersey.
The train whistle I hear isn’t the Amtrak train barreling toward Penn Station…it’s a freight train bound for Lynchburg — and maybe bound for glory as it barrels toward the city of the smug zealot Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University, a city where you can walk into a wonderful friendly place called Dudley’s and order brains and eggs and grits for breakfast, and to that I simply say “No, thanks, y’all,” to both the scrambled brains and to the late Mr. Falwell’s self-righteous and scrambled-brain brand of religion.
Last night I heard the yip and bark of coyotes in the woods. Tonight I think I also heard the screech of a bobcat and a hoot owl’s hoot. This is what you call authentic. I half-expect to hear a knock at my writing studio door to find John-Boy Walton and Daniel Boone and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos inviting me to the hoedown over in Danville.
Time for a little mood music on a Saturday night in a place that’s lovely, but clearly and definitely south of the Mason-Dixon line:


Where the cotton and the corn and the tatoes grow…

The title of this blog post is also, believe it or not, the title of the longtime official state song of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The song was written by an African-American named James Bland back in the 1800s. And the lyrics go like this:

Carry me back to old Virginny,
There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow,
There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go,
There’s where I labor’d so hard for old massa,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn,
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.

Carry me back to old Virginny,
There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow,
There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.

Carry me back to old Virginny,
There let me live ’till I wither and decay,
Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wander’d,
There’s where this old darkey’s life will pass away.
Massa and missis have long gone before me,
Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore,
There we’ll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There’s where we’ll meet and we’ll never part no more.

Yes, suh, and yes, ma’am, you read that correctly. Virginia’s theme song celebrates slavery and features an “old darkey” who loves his “old massa.”

Here’s some interesting stuff. Bland was from Long Island, N.Y. He also wrote the song “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” And through the years there have been numerous attempts to replace the song with one that did not glamorize or romanticize slavery. When those efforts failed, others tried and failed to at least change some of the words: “dreamer’s” instead of “darkey’s,”My loved ones” or “Mamma” instead of “ol’ Massa” and “Papa” in place of “Missis.”

If I got this right, I believe the song was finally designated as Virginia’s
“state song emeritus” and replaced with something a little less, um, what’s the word I’m trying to think of….Bigoted? Narrow-minded? Cruel? Redneck? All of the above.

Regardless, I have no doubt that “Carry Me Back…” still tugs at the heartstrings of plenty of Virginians.

Here’s Eddy Arnold singing this truly terrible song of pride and prejudice:

More about Virginia in the next few days. Why? Because I was just there for two weeks, and it’s on my mind, especially because the weather forecasts of about 3 feet of snow — which prompted me to end a wonderful stay at a great writers retreat one day early — appear to have been right on target.

So, in the next few days, I’ll write about that old-time religion I encountered in west-central Virginia, my stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (and a few of the amazingly talented people I met there), “hidden” rural poverty in Virginia and the South, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the “Old West,” Civil War battlefields, the Walton’s Mountain Museum and my fellow shoppers at the Super Wal-Mart store outside Lynchburg, Va., home, God help us, of Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.