As the nation goes through a racial reckoning, governments are working to root out discriminatory policies and hurtful language in everything from housing to hiring.
And Oregon’s Legislature is scrutinizing the state song, a century-old tune that celebrates roses, sunshine and Oregon’s racist, imperialistic beginnings: “Land of the Empire Builders, Land of the Golden West. Conquered and held by free men, Fairest and the best.”
The song was created through a competition held by the Society of Oregon Composers, which received more than 200 submissions in its lyric-writing contest. John Buchanan won. Henry Murtagh, a silent movie organist in Portland, set the words to music, and the resulting song became very popular for several decades. Schoolchildren and choirs sang it. But gradually, it fell out of favor.
Portland computer engineer Alok Prakash didn’t even know there was such a thing as a state song when he found it on YouTube back in 2011. Prakash moved to the states in the 1980s to study for his master’s degree. He came to Oregon from a part of India noted for its rainfall, so the Pacific Northwest immediately felt right.
“I like greenery. I like mountains. I like rain. The western part of Oregon pretty much feels like home,” he said.
“The first line said ‘empire builders.’ I have a history coming from India, of empire. The ‘empire’ word says colonization and domination,” he said. “So for me it was: ‘OK, this is not how the state song should be.’”
“Oregon, My Oregon” offended Prakash. So he came up with new words.
“My modifications were very simple: ‘Oregon my Oregon, land of the dignified green northwest, formed and nourished by free people, conservatives, liberals and all the rest,’” he said. “I think you want simple words that people can relate to, and it should inspire.”
Prakash is far from the only creative person to come up with changes to “Oregon My Oregon.”
Musician Amy Shapiro learned the song in the 1980s, when she taught it to a school choir to prepare for an event at the state Capitol. She also found the song offensive.
“I was also disturbed by the words, ‘blessed by the blood of martyrs’ to teach to my second through fifth graders,” she said. “I reluctantly taught them the song, we sang it at Salem with other children and never again after that.”
She also came up with new words to the state anthem — and she convinced her local state legislator, Rep. Sheri Schouten, to introduce a bill this session to adopt a new version.
Schouten, a Beaverton Democrat, remembers being oblivious to the white supremacist undertones when she sung the original version every day in elementary school.
“I want kids to be able to learn their state song again,” she said. “All Oregonians of all racial and ethnic backgrounds deserve a song that they can sing with pride and affections.”
Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests focused sharper attention on historic symbols such as statues, flags and songs.
State Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Lake Oswego Democrat, has proposed her own bill this session to set up a committee to pick a new state song entirely.
“We have much larger things to worry about, I know. There’s a pandemic going on. But in my view, it’s sometimes changes in the small things that make us think about the bigger things,” she said.
So far, the closest thing to opposition to change came in a recent public hearing of the House Rules Committee. Rep. Daniel Bonham, a Republican from The Dalles, said he was skeptical about changing a song he’s known since childhood.
“Should we really be cancelling our past? Should we be rewriting a song that is our state song?” Bonham said. “And yet I think the spirit with which you wrote the new words, and have created something to truly celebrate, is exciting.”