Monday, March 1, 2021

More on the Pioneer Myth: The State Song as Problematic Panegyric

In the Sunday paper was a piece from OPB on the problematic lyrics of our State Song, "Oregon, my Oregon."

Land of the Empire Builders, Land of the Golden West;
Conquered and held by free men, Fairest and the best.
On-ward and upward ever, Forward and on, and on;
Hail to thee, Land of the 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.

It was unusually frank, referencing "white supremacist undertones" and "Oregon’s racist, imperialistic beginnings."

Recent pieces have echoed this assessment, sometimes even more strongly. At Portland Monthly last year they wrote "Oregon’s 1920s-Era State Song Is Nakedly Racist."

Others have been less strong, seeing undertones again rather than naked intent. The Oregon Encyclopedia is more irenic and less definite, but still recognizes that it takes work to read in an innocent way.

In recent years, some of its phrases have been criticized as denigrating Oregon Indians and being disproportionately laudatory of the state’s white male citizenry. The lyrics include references to “empire builders,” which suggests colonial rule; to lands “conquered and held,” which emphasizes colonial usurpation; to “free men, fairest and the best,” which can be read as light-haired and racially superior in a state notorious for excluding Black residents, but may also be a reference to fairness and an easy rhyme with West; and “blest by the blood of martyrs,” a phrase that does indeed call to mind whites killed in violent conflicts with Native people.

Creating and solidifying an identity for Oregon and Oregonians distinct from other states and their residents was an important civic project. The writers mined mythic imagery and tropes as they sought to elevate place and resident. Since they were settlers, and not in fact natives, there might be an underlying anxiety about creating legitimacy.

I'm sure there's an academic paper, or even a book-length study, out there that goes into much greater detail and offers more sophisticated readings. Just casually googling "panegyric" turns up studies like Dryden and the Tradition of Panegyric and Urban Panegyric and the Transformation of the Medieval City, 1100-1300. There must be a study of poems and hymns for American states that place them in the context of panegyric for nations and cities, especially Latin forms of the Roman Republic which would be likely models.

One of the earlier, different versions of song
Oregon Teachers Monthly, Vol. 8, June 1904

As a meme the phrase is older, in fact, than the 1920s, and our version seems to be patterned on songs and poems for other states. The phrase appears to have had a place in oral traditions and conversation before, leading to its repeated use in poetry. The versions of "Oregon, my Oregon" could alone be a monograph!

Since we are interested here in the 1920s and our myths of origin, the composition and adoption of the song is of some interest. It goes right along with images of Jason Lee and the iconography of our Pioneer statuary. And in a general way, the imagery that is objectionable today was not as strongly present in the first instances of the panegyric. There is a pattern of development here, leading to the themes in the final version from 1920.

Here's a different version from just 14 years after statehood, published in Abigail Scott Duniway's new paper.

Jan. 31st, 1873

Ma Massic is the author, but that could be a pseudonym. It's really about the land and environment and not mainly about Pioneers or settlement or conflict. The language is archaic and formal. It's mostly about beauty and the sublime.

A tribute to my State I bring
A sunbeam snatched from Fame's bright wing.
Though young among they sister ring,
How dost thy heart exultant spring
As laurels over thee they fling,
Oregon, my Oregon.

An Eden thou dost proudly stand;
Veata and Ceres clasp thy hand;
Thou art by fragrant zephyrs fanned.
And fairies with a magic wand
Have flecked with gold thy ocean strand,
Oregon, my Oregon.

Thy fertile vales are herdsmen's pride;
The huntsman's Joy thy green hill-side;
O'er Cascade rocks thy wild waves ride,
And calm Columbia's waters glide
To mingle with Pacific's tide,
Oregon, my Oregon.

Thy sentinels are far extolled,
St. Helens, Hood and Rainier old;
Their armor gleams with burnished gold;
Their hearts are fire, exterior cold;
They're proud, majestic, lofty, bold,
Oregon, my Oregon.

By Nature thus profusely bless'd,
Thy sons are true to thy behest;
Right Is sustained and Wrong suppressed,
For God and Justice fire the breast.
And fame crowns thee, Star of the West,
Oregon, my Oregon.

The phrase "Oregon, my Oregon" seems to pick up in frequency in the Salem papers around 1900. 

February 12th, 1900

Around the statehood celebration in 1900, a poem appeared, written by a traveling technician, "confined in the jail, in Albany," having been arrested for "pedaling without a license." (Must be peddling, rather.)

There has got to be a story there! 

This poem also appeared in other papers around the state. Perhaps there was a campaign for it.

Like the earlier one from 1873, it is also about the outdoors and adds an underlying note of resource extraction.

A few years later, in 1904, a different version appeared in Oregon Teachers Monthly (at top). The special issue on "Oregon songs" was advertised for many weeks in the morning paper's weekly digest. Broadly it echoes the same themes, but also introduces notes of mourning about weeping "falling ones" and teaching patriotism.

March 15th, 1904

People kept composing to the phrase, testifying to its place in popular culture and imagination.

February 14th, 1909

This 1909 version was performed at a large Pioneer Association gathering in Portland in 1911. It has a new note on settlement and violence: "saved from many a hostile band/our fathers fought to win the land" and ends with reference to Marcus Whitman. Previous versions did not have this emphasis on conflict.

June 22nd, 1911

In 1911 they also performed songs purported to be in "gay" Chinook Jargon, and they seemed untroubled by the fates and cultures of prior speakers of the pidgin.

Here's another one from 1914, with a special emphasis on "the world's great lumber mart."

November 29th, 1914

Our current version arises from a competition in 1920. The song was one of three winners.

March 13th, 1920

A year later, teachers were being instructed on how to teach it. It was official propaganda!

Feb. 10th, 1921

It was grafted onto our civic ritual and memorials.

April 21st, 1925

And after it was adopted by the Legislature it starts appearing in the Blue Book.

August 30th, 1929

It's still in the Blue Book.

Blue Book online

It's a little surprising how blithely they skate over the lyrics in that current official document, even suggesting it in an unironic way as a fit subject for school children.

It don't see how you explain away "empire," "free men" and "fairest," and the "blood of the martyrs."

As an historical document, and for older students who are able to engage it critically, it has lots of value. As something to teach young school kids to sing, it's obsolete, a kind of kitsch and propaganda, and does not express the values we want to live now.

Previously here on our monuments, memorials, and myth-making:


Unknown said...

Local musical group, True North, has a wonderful new song for the state, google True North She Flies with Her Own Wings.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Here are the lyrics from Truth North's site. It personifies the state, or works ambiguity between reading "she" as a person or as the state, and is a very different approach to these 19th and early 20th century ones. Thanks for the reference.

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