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Efforts are afoot to revise state song

Initially penned for a 1919 contest held by the Society of Oregon Composers, some say the lyrics to 'Oregon, My Oregon,' deserve reconsideration.

Anwyn Willette, instructor of music technology and theory at the Portland State University School of Music and the area coordinator for the sonic arts and music production program, has been asked by the Senate President's office to revise the Oregon state song.The Senate President's office has asked a Portland State University music instructor to write new lyrics to the state song.

Initially penned for a 1919 contest held by the Society of Oregon Composers, some say the lyrics to "Oregon, My Oregon," deserve reconsideration:

"Land of the Empire Builders,

"Land of the Golden West;

"Conquered and held by free men,

"Fairest and the best.

"Onward and upward ever,

"Forward and on, and on;

"Hail to thee, Land of Heroes,

"My Oregon."

"Land of the rose and sunshine

"Land of the summer's breeze;

"Laden with health and vigor,

"Fresh from the Western seas.

"Blest by the blood of martyrs,

"Land of the setting sun;

"Hail to thee, Land of Promise,

"My Oregon."

Samantha Swindler, a columnist for The Oregonian, dedicated a column to the issue in 2016.

"The entire first verse celebrates white settlers' displacement of native tribes," Swindler wrote. "The line about 'free men' hints at Oregon's exclusion laws, which prevented blacks from settling in Oregon and weren't repealed until 1926. At best, the song is culturally insensitive. At worst, it's borderline racist."

A few months later, Rep. Sheri Malstrom, D-Beaverton, proposed a bill to officially alter two lines of the song — from "Consquered and held by free men" to "Land of Majestic Mountains," and from "Blest by the blood of martyrs" to "Blessed by the love of freedom" — but the bill died in committee.

The idea was renewed this year by Calvin Kocher, who worked as a legislative aide to State Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, in the short session.

Kocher, a recent graduate of Oregon State, said that he got interested in the state song when he was playing in the marching band there. He suggested playing the tune to the band director, who said the melody was nice but that the band couldn't play the song because the lyrics were out of date and controversial.

Kocher took a look for himself and "realized that (the lyrics) were a little old-fashioned, let's say."

He says he doesn't have any specific ideas as to revisions.

"I honestly would be happy with anything as long as it was a good representation of all Oregonians," Kocher said.

"Oregon, My Oregon," was written by John Andrew Buchanan, a judge, state representative and avid poet. It was designated the official state song in 1927, and the music was written by Henry Bernard Murtagh, according to Swindler's research.

(Buchanan's granddaughter, Carol Lambert, told Swindler in a subsequent column that she opposed changing the state song, and that Buchanan did not hold racist beliefs).

Anwyn Willette, an instructor of music technology and theory at the Portland State University School of Music and the area coordinator for the sonic arts and music production program there, says she doesn't intend to change the music, but is focused on updating the lyrics for the 21st century.

She says that while some of the song's lyrics can be considered insensitive, there are some themes that that everybody can relate to, like freedom and sacrifice.

"So what I'm trying to figure out is, if that was the language used to express the idea of finding or creating community based on freedom of expression, or freedom of whatever, then we can dispense with the verbiage and still craft something that expresses that concept," Willette said.

The first step in her process, she says, is more research on Buchanan, the song's author, and his intentions. She also wants to reach out to the state's Native American tribes for their input and possibly do research on the other songs submitted to the Composers' contest for ideas.

Willette says she may write new arrangements for the music so that people can play the state song easily on more popular instruments such as the guitar and ukulele. (The song was written for the organ and is "idiomatic" to that instrument, Willette says).

Betsy Imholt, Peter Courtney's chief of staff, approached Willette about making revisions to the song in May, Willette said.

As Lambert attested to The Oregonian, not everyone agrees that the state song requires revising. State Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, lambasted the idea of changing the state song last year, urging his constituents to convey their displeasure to lawmakers.

"We MUST stop looking at history through our 21st Century eyes," Post wrote in a blog post. "We may not always like what history tells us, but we must accept that it is history. You don't go changing the words to our State Song!"

Swindler wrote in her initial column that the song's lyrics "glorify an injustice in Oregon's founding. We can't undo that injustice, but surely we don't have to sing about it."

Willette says she believes Buchanan had a "great sense of civic duty" and were he alive today, might have written the song differently.

She came across a poem Buchanan wrote called "Why Are We Here?" where, she says, the opening stanza reads:

"We're here to do the best we can

"In service for our fellow man

"We're here to help with words of cheer

"To others in our sojourn here."

Another line in the poem, Willette says, is, "to seek in life the higher things, right thinking and right living."

"I really truly believe that if he was in our modern society, he would identify that that language (in the state song) is not appropriate, or doesn't speak to that 'right thinking,' and would maybe not have written it that way, you know what I mean?" Willette said. "…So I think we can honor the intent of ...(Buchanan) by really looking into his language and his understanding of this language and try to pull out universal ideas we all share."