Oregon Removes Lyrics About ‘Empire Builders’ From State Song
The lyrics to “Oregon, My Oregon,” which activists called racist, will be modified to reflect “significant cultural, historical, economic and societal evolution in Oregon,” a resolution said.,
Oregon lawmakers approved new lyrics for their state song this week, removing language that activists called racist and saying the song should reflect how Oregon has changed in the 94 years since it was adopted.
The resolution, which the State Senate passed 23-5 on Monday, preserves the music of the state song, “Oregon, My Oregon,” but changes the lyrics to reflect the “significant cultural, historical, economic and societal evolution in Oregon,” according to its text.
The modifications include swapping the first verse of the song, which was written by John A. Buchanan with music by Henry B. Murtagh. Its original lyrics when it was first adopted in 1927 included the lines, “land of empire builders, land of the golden West; conquered and held by free men; fairest and the best.” Those will be replaced by, “land of majestic mountains, land of the great Northwest; forests and rolling rivers, grandest and the best.”
Modified lyrics will also replace a section in the second verse, so that “blest by the blood of martyrs” becomes “blessed by the love of freedom.”
After its passage in the Legislature this week, the resolution was filed on Wednesday with the office of Oregon’s secretary of state, Shemia Fagan, a spokeswoman said.
In the resolution, lawmakers put the proposal in context of “an active and ongoing national movement to secure truly equal treatment for peoples of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.”
Native people had lived in Oregon “from time immemorial,” the lawmakers wrote, and Black and Chinese people had “suffered from de jure exclusion in the early decades of Oregon’s statehood.”
The lawmakers alluded to concern among musical groups about the original lyrics, saying that “many musicians, bands and choral groups would like to perform the Oregon state song but do not feel it is appropriate to present the current lyrics in public.”
“Oregonians of all backgrounds deserve an inclusive way to celebrate our great state in song,” the resolution said.
The new lyrics were proposed and written by Amy Donna Shapiro, a musician in Beaverton, Ore., who had been advocating changes to the song for years.
“I didn’t like the song and I didn’t like the words,” Ms. Shapiro said in an interview on Wednesday. Recalling her days working as a music teacher and choir director, she said she had been reluctant to teach the original song because of its lyrics.
In testimony in support of the resolution, she wrote that the song’s original lyrics were “outdated, misleading and offensive words glorifying oppression and murder.”
She said she wanted the new lyrics to celebrate Oregon’s beauty by referring to its mountains and forests.
Ms. Shapiro watched on her laptop on Monday when the Legislature voted in favor of the new lyrics. “I was overjoyed,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. We shouldn’t have a racist song.”
Kim Stafford, Oregon’s poet laureate from 2018 to 2020, also supported the resolution.
In a letter to legislators in February, Mr. Stafford wrote that the state song “includes racist and exclusionary language from a more primitive time in our state’s history.”
He said that “the existing state song is crowded with cliches and generic phrases not sufficient for the true identity of Oregon.” He added that “to have generations of young people in Oregon sing this kind of language is an insult to them, to Oregon, and to the true power of song to tell truth, to specify deep identity, and to inspire.”
State Representative Sheri Schouten said on Wednesday that she supported the resolution because she wanted children “to be able to learn their state song again.”
“All Oregonians, of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, deserve a state song they can sing with pride and affection,” she said.
State Senator Brian Boquist said that he voted against the resolution because he does not “believe in revisionist history.”
He added, “If the state wants to adopt a new and different song then that is what they should do, not change an old song.