John T. Willis

Friday, October 23, 2009

Carry Me Back to Old Uzzy

A previous blog in the Book of Job contains Job 29, where Job longs to go back to the "good old days" in Uz, where he was in great health and was very rich and was trying to serve God faithfully. As we worked through this chapter, I immediately thought of the song: "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." But at that point, I did not bring this up, because in the minds of some people, this song is controversial.

In this blog, I want to share at least part of this story.

James A. Bland lived in America from 1854 to 1911. He was an African American minstrel. He was born in Queens, New York, and was well educated at Howard University. During his life, Bland produced over 700 folk songs. Bland wrote "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" in 1878, soon after the American Civil War, when many of the newly freed slaves were struggling to find work, and this song has become controversial in modern times. Alma Gluck produced the 1916 version of this son, and was the first celebrity recording by a classical musician to sell one million copies. Ray Charles covered this song on his full covered release "Sings for America."

Bland wrote this song from the perspective of a seemingly nostalgic former slave. The controversy over this song is over the question of whether or not this song may be intended or interpreted ironically. The ex-slave describes his slavery and his owners in picturesque and ostensibly positive terms. However, defenders of this song argue that this interpretation is too literal, and that "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" articulates and perhaps satirizes the feelings of betrayal and abandonment white Southerners felt after Emancipation. Like minstrel music of the same era, the song was written in dialect, from an African American point of view, and expressed the feelings some whites wished blacks to feel; in this case, nostalgia for days of slavery. Others argue the song was written to express difficulties and discrimination facing free African Americans in the North which perhaps were bitter enough to make slavery an ironically appealing contrast. These defenders argue that minstrel's songs were never written to be taken literally but were sly and humorous. The slightly less explicit "Old Folks at Home" is still the state song of Florida with important modifications, and carries a message similar to "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny."

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" was Virginia's state song from 1940 to 1997. But in 1997, the Virginia State Assembly retired this song for fear that the lyrics were considered offensive to African Americans. On March 1, 2006, the Virginia State Senate designated "Shenanoah" as the official state song of Virginia.

I would NEVER intentionally offend any one, certainly African Americans. Some of my dearest friends and students are African Americans. They all know I love them very much. I am so sorry that a song like this gets used in various ways, and leads to hard feelings and serious misunderstandings. For myself, I love this song, and think of this as an important song in the growing history of America. Now, of course, we would revise some of the language used by Bland in 1878, but the thoughts are touching and moving. Here is the original version of Bland's song.

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and corn and taters grow.
There's where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time
There's where this old darkey;s heart am long'd to go.

There's where I labored 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.

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and corn and taters grow;
There's where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go.

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There let me live till I wither and decay.
Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wandered,
There's where this old darkey's life will pass away.

Mass and Missis have long since gone before me,
Soon we will meet on that bring and golden shore.
There we's be happy and free from all sorrow,
There's where we'll meet and we'll never part no more.

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow.
There's where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time
There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go.

We wish we could change history. But events happened through history, and when they happened, we today cannot change those events. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were founders of the Restoration Movement. These men lived on large farms and had slaves. They claimed they were Christians. We would never agree with this. We are so thankful now that we are making progress in showing love and compassion and respect and appreciation for all people. I love African Americans, and I for one am so sorry and ashamed that we who are descendants of Anglo-Americans who treated African Americans in ungodly ways. I hope and pray that I do not do this. I certainly do not intend to be this way.

It is a good time for all of us to turn again to God and pray that God will help us heal our hearts and change our lives, so that we can partipate in Jesus' prayer in John 17:17-21 that all human beings might be one.

Do YOU appreciate James Bland's wonderful song: "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny?" What are YOUR responses? Share YOUR ideas with others. Let me hear from YOU.

John Willis


  • John, enjoyed your blog 'bout Ol' Virginny. Thought you might enjoy my version which is at;
    as a free download.
    I'd enjoy knowing your take on this... rewrite/collaboration. James Bland was truly a wonderful writer and deserves better! Currently VA has no State Song-as Shenandoah was rejected because it was about a tribe of Native Americans livin on the'wide Missouri'. I'm at;
    Bob Zentz

    By Blogger zentzfolk, at 12:09 AM  

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