Carry Me Back To Old Virginny

Album: Songs of the South (1878)
Play Video


  • 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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Alexander Baron - London, England
  • The song is about a freed slave who reflects fondly on his time in captivity and dreams of seeing his former master in Heaven. It's a ludicrous sentiment, but not out of place for the time it was written. What's surprising is how long it endured, thanks largely to its association with the state of Virginia.

    Minstrel songs like this one were largely forgotten in the Tin Pan Alley era of the 1900s, but a few survived into the Civil Rights era, notably "Dixie." As the state song of Virginia, "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" grew roots, giving it even more staying power than "Dixie," and for many of its supporters, an intractable nostalgia.

    Defenders of the song point out that it was written by a black man and recorded by a number of black artists, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles among them. But it's hard to defend lines like:

    There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go
    There's where I labor'd so hard for old Massa

    The song was still played at state functions in Virginia when State Senator Douglas Wilder made the first effort to repeal it in 1970. Wilder, who became Virginia's first African American governor in 1990, is the grandson of slaves and an outspoken critic of the song. Wilder's effort failed, as did many others until 1997 when the song was finally repealed.
  • The Alma Gluck version recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company became the first celebrity recording by a classical musician to sell one million copies. The song was awarded the seventh gold disc ever granted.
  • Many performers altered the lyrics when they sang the song, often replacing "darkey" with "dreamer" and "old massa" with "my loved ones." Ray Charles reworked the song completely, making it no less offensive than "Georgia On My Mind."
  • This song inspired the title of Old Crow Medicine Show's 2012 album Carry Me Back, and also an original song they wrote for that album called "Carry Me Back to Virginia."

    The history of the song held a continual fascination for Old Crow's Ketch Secor. He decided to make a song that was similar in the sense that it praised something that was horrible beneath the surface, so he wrote "Carry Me Back to Virginia." The song is about a story Secor heard as a kid. "The Confederates ran out of men," Secor recalled, "so they got 16-year-old boys from VMI, just kids, to march up to New Market, Virginia. I imagine their pride and valor as they marched up that hill and their shock as they heard the screams of the horses in the smoke. I wanted to surprise the listener the same way, so I started off by extolling the virtue of war, then drawing off all that glory till the truth was revealed."

    "I'm from Shenandoah Valley, where the story takes place," added Secor. "I stepped off the school bus and into a battlefield, because the Civil War was waged in our yard. I grew up in a town with a monument in the center of town, a statue of young boy. This boy standing up there in front of the courthouse intrigued me; he's there in every town, extolling war, but he's lying through his teeth."

Comments: 2

  • Andrew from Arlington VaCorrection: In 2015 Virginia chose as its "traditional" state song "Our Great Virginia." The "popular" state song is “Sweet Virginia Breeze.”
  • Andrew from Arlington VaIn various slightly different forms, this was Virginia's official state song from 1940 to 1997 when due to its racist content it was designated the "state song emeritus." As of 2019, Virginia has not chosen a new song.

    For Governor Wilder, attempting to dethrone the song was very personal. As NPR related, "In 1969, Douglas Wilder became the first African-American elected to Virginia's Senate since Reconstruction. After his election, Wilder went to a dinner where lawmakers broke out in the state song, an old minstrel song called "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny." In a 2015 interview, Wilder described fleeing the event in shock. DOUGLAS WILDER: So I drove around the city about 45 minutes that night because I just couldn't get myself together. And I said, this is the state song of Virginia? I can't believe it."
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Stephen Christian of Anberlin

Stephen Christian of AnberlinSongwriter Interviews

The lead singer/lyricist for Anberlin breaks down "Impossible" and covers some tracks from their 2012 album Vital.

Little Richard

Little RichardFact or Fiction

Was Long Tall Sally a cross-dresser? Did he really set his piano on fire? See if you know the real stories about one of rock's greatest innovators.

Donald Fagen

Donald FagenSongwriter Interviews

Fagen talks about how the Steely Dan songwriting strategy has changed over the years, and explains why you don't hear many covers of their songs.

Tim Butler of The Psychedelic Furs

Tim Butler of The Psychedelic FursSongwriter Interviews

Tim and his brother Richard are the Furs' foundation; Tim explains how they write and tells the story of "Pretty In Pink."

American Hits With Foreign Titles

American Hits With Foreign TitlesSong Writing

What are the biggest US hits with French, Spanish (not "Rico Suave"), Italian, Scottish, Greek, and Japanese titles?

Brenda Russell

Brenda RussellSongwriter Interviews

Brenda talks about the inspiration that drove her to write hit songs like "Get Here" and "Piano in the Dark," and why a lack of formal music training can be a songwriter's best asset.