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Thursday, July 7, 2016 12:20 am

Everybody join in

Illinois needs a new state song for a new era

You know how some songs seem just right for the moment? Charles H. Chamberlain and Archibald Johnston’s isn’t. The state of Illinois made their “Illinois” the official state song in 1925, but it wasn’t right for that moment, harking as it did not to the Jazz Age but to the immediate post-Civil War era. As for its aptness for today, well, here are the opening lines.

By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois,
O’er the prairies verdant growing, Illinois, Illinois,
Comes an echo on the breeze. . . .   

The state’s namesake river is gently flowing all right; navigation dams built to service our agro-industrial complex have turned the Illinois into a series of linked ponds. Prairies are growing verdantly only in a few nature preserves. And the echo on the breeze is not the mellow tones of citizens singing their state’s own praises but calling each other names.

To the list of Springfield’s undone business, therefore, add finding a new state song. A new anthem that fits the mood of this historical moment doesn’t have to be a new song. In “Mis-say it loud, mis-say it proud,” I mentioned but did not much describe the 19th century song “El-A-Noy.” The tenor of its lyrics is usually described as braggadocio verging on blarney, but it is their sardonic note that appeals to my ear these days.

She’s bounded by the Wabash, the Ohio and the Lakes.
She’s crawfish in the swampy lands, the milk-sick and the shakes.
But these are slight diversions and take not from the joy
Of living in this garden land, the state of Elanoy.

The shakes, of course, is malaria, and the milk-sick afflicted our forbears who drank milk from cows who’d feasted on the poisonous white snakeroot plant. It’s a perfect song for a state whose governor’s Turnaround Agenda means going backwards on public health.

Billy Corgan wrote his own lyrics to El-a-Noy, which he performed, among other places, at his first-ever solo acoustic show at Metro in 2004. Corgan misunderstood the original lyrics; he heard them as “a folk song from the 1860s about settlers coming into Chicago” which nobody did by “cross[ing] at Shawnee Ferry.” Chicago is brought up, but  only to be put down. (“Her men are all like Abelard, her women like Heloise/All honest virtuous people, for they live in Elanoy.”) The misunderstanding suggests that the Smashing Pumpkins’ troubador doesn’t know a joke when he hears one, but then he made that pretty clear from Zwan.

While never a standard, the World War I song “Back in Illinois” (lyrics by George J. Long of Gillespie, music by R.A. Browne) appealed to homesick soldiers. (“Oh boy, how good it feels/to have those home-cooked meals/back home in Illinois.”) The song lived on for a time; the Tennessee Tooters recorded it, as did the Lawrence Welk band in the 1940s; you can hear the version by the Arcadian Ramblers from 1925 on YouTube.

Of late there has been a lot of yearning for home by sons and daughters of Illinois. Kevin Browne (from Belleville, I think) and Edgar County’s country singer/songwriter Brett Eldredge have each recorded his wish to be back in Illnois. They are typical of several such songs in not actually being homages to Illinois but to home, to lovers or to childhood. One such valentine was written by the young Randy Newman back when he was hacking as a contract songwriter, selling stuff to established artists like the Everly Brothers, who recorded his “Illinois” in 1968. How could a team of Randy Newman and the Everlys lose? When singing about Illinois, apparently; the song is drivel.

For those who grew up here, Illinois is family – meaning the place to go back to after you’ve failed abroad, because they have to let you in. Peoria’s Dan Fogelburg’s “Illinois” is a lament of every Sucker who’s left the state looking for a brighter future only to find he wasn’t good enough to make it anywhere else. (“This lamb has got to/Return to the fold/And it looks like you’re gonna/Have to see me again.”) If some of our self-deported workers and cashed-out retirees had this song playing in their heads, might they have thought twice about leaving?

You didn’t ask, but my own choice came from Dylan, whose “baby went to Illinois with some bad-talking boy” in 1979’s “Slow Train:”

Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted
Can’t help but wonder what’s happening to my companions
Are they lost or are they found, have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon ?
There’s a slow, slow train coming up around the bend.

It took 37 years, but maybe that slow train is finally here.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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