Mystery of a Virginia poem
At auction this week, I got a box lot with two postcards. One was a linen postcard, unused, celebrating the state of Virginia. The images included a train traveling through a countryside and two covered wagons on a dirt road.
Between these two images was a poem, titled “Virginia,” that began:
“The roses nowhere bloom so white
As in Virginia;
The sunshine nowhere shines so bright
As in Virginia;
The birds sing nowhere quite so sweet
And nowhere hearts so lightly beat.
For Heaven and Earth both seem to meet
Down in Virginia”
The sentimental poem showed some writer’s love for his home state, but there was no name attached to it. Curious, I wondered if this was the Virginia state poem. So, I Googled and found that the state does not have a poem. (Neither does my state of Pennsylvania.)
Was it the state song? No, again. Virginia has an emeritus state song, but no official song. The emeritus song is “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” by James Bland, an African American composer of minstrel songs. It had been the official state song from 1940 to 1997.
The lyrics, which romanticize slavery, didn’t sit well with some African Americans in the state, and I can understand that after reading them. Bland was born of free parents in Flushing, NY, in 1854. So could he have been satirizing white Southerner’s nostalgia for the “good old days” when he wrote the lyrics in 1878?
Here’s the first verse:
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.
Bland wrote the song as he sat on the banks of the James River with a friend he was visiting in Tidewater, VA. In his lifetime, Bland, a self-taught banjo player who attended Howard University, wrote about 700 songs and made his living in black minstrel shows. He also wrote “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” adopted by the Philadelphia Mummers as the unofficial theme song of their parade.
Bland went to London in 1881 and spent 20 years performing there before returning to the United States, broke. He died in Philadelphia – where he had lived for awhile when he was young – in1911 and is buried here. His grave had been unmarked for years until a group of people found it and erected a marker.
Since I found that the “poem” was not the state song, I kept looking. I found a reference to it in the 1904 Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia. In an address, the president at the time said he thought of the three verses after college musicians serenaded him outside his home one night with the song of his home state of North Carolina. He suggested that the poem be put to music for a Virginia state song.
I believe I finally found the author: Harry (or Charles as I also found him listed) Curran Wilbur. According to the book “Memories of Virginia (1907),” the poem was written by the newspaperman for his wife, who was from Virginia. The verses are switched in the book, however: the first verse is the last verse on my postcard. The writer said it was first published in the Wheeling (I assume it’s West Virginia) newspaper in 1903.
If anyone else has information about this poem, please let me know.
You never know where research – and history – will take you. Meanwhile, continue to join me on the ride.