Ohio’s state song, “Beautiful Ohio,” began life as a popular song. It’s not one of the songs whose popularity has lasted for several generations. It is now as obscure as most state songs. It has a strange story, but where did the idea of an official state song come from, anyway?
American song writers have chosen cities as subject matter at least since 1831, when J. A. Gairdner composed and published “New York, O! What a Charming City.” I have no idea what might be the first song about a state, but Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” appeared well before the Civil War.
If writing songs about states got started in the 19th century, the habit of designating one as the official state song started only in the 20th. One S. H. M. Byers wrote a poem called “The Song of Iowa” to fit the tune “O Tannenbaum” in 1897. The Iowa state legislature designated it the official state song in 1911. Since then, every state except New Jersey has adopted at least one official state song.
An overview of state songs
Iowa, as noted, adopted a poem about the state set to a familiar tune. Everyone in the world knows the tune. Probably no one outside Iowa—and not many in Iowa—knows or cares about the words. I suppose it is used on important ceremonial occasions.
Plenty of states have likewise chosen songs not likely to be well known outside the state. Hawaii’s official song, for example, was once its national anthem. King Kalahaua wrote the words and his bandmaster supplied the music.
Other states have attempted to make sure that their state songs are well known. Connecticut designated “Yankee Doodle” in 1978. Kentucky made a similarly safe choice, “My Old Kentucky Home,” in 1928. Choosing a popular song is risky, however. They don’t always stay popular.
In 1915 the Colorado legislature adopted “Where the Columbines Grow,” a song written by A.J. Flynn in 1896 as he rode through the state on a train. The lyrics describe the state’s spectacular scenery, but never mention it by name. Flynn’s song must have become popular, but hasn’t remained so.
So Colorado adopted an additional song in 2007, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” Some residents wondered about the adoption of a drug song, but at least everyone knows it. Sooner or later, everyone will probably forget it. At that time, Colorado will have two once-popular songs that no one remembers.
Ohio’s state song is likewise a once-popular song that no one knows.
Beautiful Ohio, the popular song
“Beautiful Ohio” appeared in 1918, with words by Ballard MacDonald and music by Mary Earl. MacDonald and his lyrics are straightforward enough. He was a successful Tin Pan Alley lyricist who also wrote the words to “Second Hand Rose” and other hits. Besides his work with such outstanding Tin Pan Alley composers as Sigmund Romberg, Albert Von Tilzer, and George Gershwin. He also supplied lyrics for numerous Hollywood films.
His text, a fairly standard love song, concerns two lovers drifting down the Ohio River in a canoe. That’s the Ohio River. It starts in Pennsylvania defines one border of five other states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, and Kentucky. In other words, the lovers could have been drifting along parts of the river that don’t touch Ohio at all.
In contrast, there is not much straightforward about Mary Earl. That’s a pen name for Robert A. “Bobo” King. That, in turn is a pen name for Robert Keiser. I would be tempted to think that Robert Keiser decided to become known as Robert King a German-sounding name during the First World War. Except that as near as I can tell, he published his first song, “Anona” (1903) as King.
I also have no idea why he chose Mary Earl as a pen name. I do have an idea why he used pen names. By 1918,the year of “Beautiful Ohio,” he was under contract to the publishing firm of Shapiro-Bernstein to product four songs a month. That’s a lot of music. Some customers might be suspicious of the quality of songs that could come from such a prolific composer. Writing as King, Earl, Keiser (among other identities) enabled him to honor his contract without risking credibility.
Like MacDonald, he was very successful. Songs that you may recognize include “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” (1922), “I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Banana Blues” (1923), and “I Scream You Scream We All Scream For Ice Cream” (1925).
Beautiful Ohio, the state song
The Ohio Legislature officially adopted “Beautiful Ohio” in 1969. The Tin Pan Alley era of American popular music had only recently begun to come to a close. Many people in the state probably had at least some familiarity with the song.
Less than twenty years later, a younger generation had probably never known it. The Ohio legislature approved a new official rock song, “Hang on Sloopy” in 1985. Four years later, it upgraded “Beautiful Ohio and replaced the original lyrics with new words by an attorney from Youngstown named Wilbert McBride.
McBride replaced not only MacDonald’s lovers, but the river as well. MacDonald’s verse describes the little red canoe; McBride’s describes crossing the ocean looking for a place and finding it. His chorus then describes what the state is all about, from the factories in great cities to the farms to the beauty of its flowers.
“That old chestnut,” as the legislature described “Beautiful Ohio” in the resolution adopting “Hang On Sloopy,” is now fitted with words deemed more suitable for the official ceremonies at which it is sung.
Each official state song has its own history. Stay tuned.