Carry Me Back to Old Virginny

James Bland, 1878

Following the Civil War, it was common for whites, especially in the South, to believe that African Americans had been better off under slavery. Why do you think an African American man like James Bland would write a song like "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," which longs for the days of slavery in the Old South?

Compare and contrast "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" with "My Old Kentucky Home," an earlier song by white composer Stephen Foster. Based on your hearing of the lyrics and music, what conventions were established in Foster's day that Bland deployed a generation later?

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" was the Virginia state song until 1997. Why do you think it was a meaningful song to certain Virginians? Why was it divisive?

Ray Charles recorded a version of this song in 1960 (the B side of the record was "Georgia On My Mind"). Why do you think he would record this song? Do you think he really longed for "Old Virginny," or were there other reasons to record the song?

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" performed by the Knickerbocker Four on The Treasury of Barbershop Quartets, © 2006. Available on iTunes, Spotify and YouTube.

The Knickerbocker Quartet was formed in 1908 to replace the Edison Male Quartet. Original members were John Young, George M. Stricklett, Frederick Wheeler and Gus Reed. Personnel changed around 1912. Young and Wheeler were joined by Walter Van Brunt and William F. Hooley.

Columbia announced in 1917 the formation of a new Knickerbocker Quartet consisting of first tenor George Eldred, second tenor Robert Lewis (aka Lewis James), baritone William Morgan, and bass Glenn Howard.

View the lyrics for "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia."

View the published score.

Cover for James Bland's Great Ethiopian Songs
James A. Bland's "Great Ethiopian Songs." New York: Hitchcock's Music Store, 1880.

James Bland (1854–1911) was an African American composer of well-known minstrel tunes. Born in Flushing, New York, his family moved to Washington D.C. when his father was hired as an examiner in the United States Patent Office (he was the first African American to hold such a post). James attended Howard University but left to work in minstrelsy, which witnessed the emergence of many black troupes after the Civil War.

A banjoist, Bland joined the Original Black Diamonds in 1875 and went on to perform with many other minstrel troupes. He spent a great deal of time in London and became especially popular in Germany. By the time he returned to the United States in 1890, minstrelsy's popularity was declining and vaudeville's was ascending. Bland's once considerable celebrity faded, and he died penniless in Philadelphia in 1911.

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" is not to be confused with an earlier song of a similar name, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," published in 1847 and attributed to E. P. Christy. Christy's song has completely different music and lyrics. It relates the feelings of an old man who labored for many years on a boat; no longer able to work, he longs to return home.

Bland's "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" is representative of songs in which freed people are portrayed as wanting to return to their homes in the South. Such songs depict what Stephanie Dunson calls a "mythic plantation life—that supposedly happier time and place when the now world-weary Black characters were deemed to have led carefree lives under the tender care of their kindly white masters" (p. 241). The fantasy of "happy" plantation life was central to the minstrel tradition and was often accepted by whites as reality.

One might wonder why a black composer would write such a song. The answer lies in the limited opportunities for Blacks in an industry controlled by whites and that catered to white taste. Bland and other African Americans either had to work within the established conventions of popular culture or find another line of work.

Although it is controversial today, the song's popularity has persisted. It was recorded numerous times in the twentieth century, notably by famed soprano Alma Gluck in 1915, and in 1940 Virginia adopted it as the official state song. It held this honor until it was retired in 1997 amid concerns about racism in its lyrics.



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