By CHRIS McMANES — DeMatha Catholic High School has one of the nation’s finest music programs. Its students routinely perform with distinction and receive thousands of dollars in college scholarships.
So it is little wonder that when the state of Maryland sent out its most recent call for a new state song, the school on Madison Street responded.
Tom Ponton, DeMatha’s director of advancement, took the initiative by writing lyrics and a melody. He reached out to Jim Turk, the school’s director of vocal music, who in turn enlisted the help of then-senior Dale Gray.
Michael Butler, a DeMatha grad now on a full vocal performance scholarship at the University Maryland, put the finishing touch on the song by recording it solo. The multi-person collaboration resulted in “Maryland, Our Home.”
“I think it’s pretty darn good,” Turk said.
Ponton, like many others throughout the state, is not enamored with the official state song, “Maryland! My Maryland!”
“The music is not original, and the lyrics are antiquated,” Ponton said. “Regardless of whether they use our composition, there should be another song representing the state. One that is sung with pride by any Marylander.
“It doesn’t have to be what I’ve written, but there needs to be a change.”
“Maryland! My Maryland” comes from a poem James Ryder Randall wrote in 1861 after the Pratt Street Riot in Baltimore led to the first bloodshed of the Civil War.
Essentially a Confederate battle hymn, it expressed Randall’s outrage at Union troops marching through Baltimore on their way to Washington. While the state was officially a Union state, many Marylanders sympathized with the Rebel cause.
“Maryland! My Maryland!” encouraged the state to secede from the Union and take up arms against the North. It was adopted as Maryland’s official state song in 1939.
Perhaps the movie “Gone With the Wind,” which debuted that year and romanticized life in the antebellum and war-torn South, influenced the legislature’s decision. To many people, the most troubling aspect of the piece is a handful of words.
For example, the “despot’s heel” whose “torch is at thy temple door” refers to President Abraham Lincoln. In the final stanza, those who favor the Union cause are “Northern scum.”
In “Maryland, Our Home,” Ponton highlights the natural beauty of the state often called America in miniature. He begins with:
From the waters of the Atlantic Ocean
To the city of Baltimore
In the shadow of the Appalachians
And the fields of the Eastern Shore
Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) sponsored a bill last year to change “Maryland! My Maryland” from official to historical state song. It passed the state Senate by a vote of 30-13. It never reached the floor in the House of Delegates, however, after receiving an unfavorable report from the Health & Government Operations Committee.
Kagan’s original bill, with Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) as one of five co-sponsors, called for a competition to choose a fresh state song. That part of the bill was among things excised before the final Senate vote.
Ryan Kirby, Kagan’s legislative aide, said in late January the song is not on the senator’s legislative agenda this year.
The possibility of a competition that would have been judged by a state panel inspired Ponton “to take a crack at writing my own song to honor the state of Maryland. If they wind up having a contest at some point, then certainly I’ll submit it.”
Turk and Ponton both pointed out that the music to “Maryland! My Maryland” isn’t original. It’s set to the tune of “O Tannenbaum,” or “O Christmas Tree” in English.
“It would be nice if the state of Maryland had a song with its own unique melody.” Ponton said.
The melody is among the reasons Turk is not a fan of the song.
“When people hear the music, they think Christmastime,” he said. “That’s not what our state song should be. Tom has the additional concern, as do I, of the appropriateness of the lyrics.
“That’s what inspired him to come up with a possible alternative.”
“I have more of a background in actual composition, and his background is more in lyrics,” Turk said. “So that makes us a pretty good team.”
Turk enlisted Gray’s help on “Maryland, Our Home” because he was busy with other projects. He speaks highly of Gray, now a music major at UMBC.
“He listened to Tom’s concept of how the tune should go with the words and probably didn’t do very much in terms of changing it,” Turk said. “He just made it come to life. He figured out what the chords would be and how to accompany it at the keyboard.
“Those are among Dale’s top skills. He’s a very talented young man.”
After Gray and Ponton completed their portion, they returned to Turk in June of 2017. Turk said he did very little – “one percent” – to write the song. In October of that year, he brought in a sound engineer to record the DeMatha chorus singing it. In December 2017, it was performed at the DeMatha Fall Choral Concert.
Ponton liked the choral arrangement but thought it would sound better with a soloist. That’s when Turk contacted Butler, who was already coming to campus to sing some religious songs for school president Father James Day.
“So, we decided to add this to the repertoire,” Ponton said of Butler’s June 2018 recording.
“He’s an extraordinarily gifted singer, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent,” Turk said. “I met him at his audition and was knocked over by the sheer beauty and power of his voice.”
Ponton, a St. Jerome (1974), DeMatha (1978) and Maryland (1982) graduate, praised Butler’s contribution.
“I think I could give Michael Butler ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ and he’d make it sound operatic,” he said. “To have it sung by somebody of his talent definitely elevates the lyrics.”
Marketing ‘Maryland, Our Home’
In January 2018, prior to a DeMatha home basketball game, the song was played in the school’s Kilby Alumni Lounge for State Senate Majority Leader Doug Peters (D-Prince George’s) and Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D-Calvert). Peters has a son who attends DeMatha and two graduates.
This past December, Ponton emailed “Maryland, Our Home,” to several other Maryland legislators, including Sen. Pinsky and Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s), a Hyattsville resident whose district includes DeMatha.
“The legislature always has a lot of important things on the agenda,” Ponton said. “So, I’m not sure they will revisit the issue this year.”
Ponton also sent the song to the Maryland Office of Tourism. He received a favorable response and was told they would post it on their Website if it contained images. An original version contained copyrighted photos, so Ponton is seeking copyright-free images.
“At the very least,” he said, “Maryland has another song highlighting some of the things that make it special.”
Hyattsville resident Chris McManes (mick-maynz) frequently writes about DeMatha High School. You can follow him at @ChrisMcManes1.