In 1940, a slightly reworded version of this slow nostalgic 19th Century number was adopted as the Official State Song Of Virginia, but on January 28, 1997, the Virginia Senate decided by 24 votes to 15 to designate it "State Song Emeritus." That's because "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" is a "coon song" first published in 1878 and written from the perspective of a slave.
The song's writer was not a white Southerner, but a black Northerner named James Bland, a free man. Few musicologists would disagree with the assessment of Derek Scott in The Singing Bourgeois
that James Bland was "the finest minstrel composer of the 1870s and 80s."
Bland, the son of the first black US patent examiner, attended the prestigious Howard University, but instead of following his father into the legal profession, he fell in love with music on campus, and carved out an illustrious career for himself which saw "The World's Greatest Minstrel Man" wow audiences in the English music halls. According to The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
, he "drew on his memories of a peaceful plantation on the James River and wrote the nostalgic number about an old slave who wishes to be brought back to the South where he was born."
It may be too that Bland was influenced by an earlier song, "Carry Me Back To Old Virginia," which was arranged and sung by E.P. Christy in 1847 (though Christy's song was actually about a boat!).
Bland's composition - his most famous - was introduced by the white artist George Primrose (who performed in blackface), who was "a longtime staple in minstrel shows" and remained popular long after minstrelsy was eclipsed by Vaudeville, ragtime and jazz. The earliest recording appears to be by Alma Gluck in 1915, and it was sung by Nelson Eddy in the 1937 film Maytime
, among others.
Alexander Baron - London, England