Sing a song of Oregon

An effort to remove offensive language from the state song could end up with dual anthems to Oregon.

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It looks like Oregonians will need to learn new words to the state song, though that shouldn’t trouble many, because it seems few actually sing it.

“No one sings it, it’s so offensive,” said Rep. Sheri Schouten, D-Beaverton, sponsor of House Concurrent Resolution 11. In introducing the measure, she described the song’s lyrics as “outdated, racist and White Supremist language.”

There’s been a move for years to revise or replace the state song, Oregon, My Oregon. HCR11, which revises the song’s first stanza, recently passed the House and is in the Senate awaiting a vote.

“I’ve talked to people there and I am very confident it will pass,” Schouten said.

The cover of sheet music for “Oregon, My Oregon” depicts pioneers along the Oregon Trail.
The cover of sheet music for “Oregon, My Oregon” depicts pioneers along the Oregon Trail.

The new language, written by professional singer-songwriter Amy Shapiro, changes the first verse from:

 Land of the Empire Builders, 
 Land of the Golden West; 
 Conquered and held by free men, 
 Fairest and the Best, 

 To:

 Land of Majestic Mountains, 
 Land of the Great Northwest; 
 Forests and rolling rivers, 
 Grandest and the best. 

A reference in the second verse to “blessed by the blood of martyrs” becomes “blessed by the love of freedom” in the revision.

A second bill, HB2329, sponsored by Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, also addressed changing the state song, but died in the House. Not everyone is satisfied that HCR11 goes far enough, and some hope a state song contest might do what legislators have not.

“Once they chose HCR11, Amy Shapiro and Schouten’s amended song will be the new state song,” said Crystal Meneses (formerly Akins) of Lincoln City, organizer of the Oregon State Song Contest. “It’s the same music, different lyrics; it’s not a win for BIPOC. Again, we weren’t included in the process. We’re covering up racism like we historically do. The Legislature had the option to choose the public process and they didn’t choose it.”

Schouten, however, says the BIPOC caucus supported HCR11, and the idea of a statewide song contest was discussed during a public hearing on the legislation.

Sponsor

Despite the racist language, many people don’t like the idea of toying with the traditional state song, Schouten said, noting she’s worked for four years to make the change happen.

“There were ‘No’ votes on the House floor from people who didn’t want to throw away a historic song,” she said. “This bridged some of that. It’s a beautiful song….. The state song isn’t supposed to be a manuscript about the history of Oregon, but simply a celebratory song, something sweet and simple you can sing. Most of us felt it didn’t have to be completely gutted.”    

A contest to choose the state song is not a new idea — that’s how Oregon, My Oregon came to be the official state song in 1927. The music was written by professional musician Henry B. Murtagh and the words by John A. Buchanan, an Astoria city judge, amateur poet, and two-time state representative, according to the Oregon Blue Book. The song won a contest sponsored by the Society of Oregon Composers in 1920.

The latest Oregon State Song Contest launches May 15 and will continue through November.

“We have rallied organizations across the state to come together to create this process where anyone who lives in Oregon can submit a song to the Oregon State Song Contest,” Meneses said. “All ages, all socio-economic backgrounds, all people of color; it’s very inclusive.”

Committees made up of people from all over the state will chose the top 10 songs from YouTube videos submitted via the contest page. The top 10 will go to a virtual vote online. Meneses plans to take the winning song to the Legislature in hopes of having it made a second official state song. 

The move for a new state song also includes an educational component, with a teacher/parent toolkit designed to inspire submissions. According to the website, the toolkit includes “Oregon history lessons, ‘How to Write A Song,’ video modules, conversation prompts about inclusion, and lessons in civic engagement through arts activism.”

There is room for both a revised Oregon, My Oregon and new songs, Schouten said.

“The idea was to make this something we could sing,” she said. Nothing in the bill prohibits another state song, she added. “This is taking the original and making it less offensive and usable again. This is a very good time to do this. There is much greater awareness of words matter, and we need to be more respectful of everyone who is here.”  

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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