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Opinion: Tuning in to state’s official song

Did you know that Pennsylvania has an official state song?

Well, you’re not alone. I was really surprised to learn about it, too. If someone had asked me to guess what the title is, I would have said, hands down, “The Pennsylvania Polka.” You know, “It started in Scranton/It’s now number one ... (clap, clap, clap, clap).”

Well, I wasn’t even close.

The song is titled simply enough “Pennsylvania” and was adopted by the General Assembly in 1990, thanks to the efforts of a group of state legislators, including the late Sen. James Rhoades, R-Schuylkill.

I heard it for the first time shortly before Gov. Josh Shapiro was sworn in during ceremonies at the state capitol in Harrisburg in January. “Pennsylvania” was sung by the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus.

As I thought about it, we have a state flower (mountain laurel), state dog (Great Dane), beverage (milk), fish (brook trout), insect (Pennsylvania firefly), etc., so why not a state song?

Fascinated by this discovery, I went into research mode to find the origins of the song and how it came about. “Pennsylvania” was written by songwriting collaborators from Philadelphia - Eddie Khoury and Ronnie Butler. The song beat out a number of other contenders, prompting Khoury, a retired employee of the Philadelphia Prison System, to suggest that when you throw more than 200 contenders into the mix and their song comes out on top, there has to be a certain amount of luck in that.

There were lots of suggestions for state song, including Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” the song that residents in the Lehigh County community hate because of the false impression it gave to the world about our area. Another was Guy Mitchell’s 1950s hit, “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” - “There’s a pawn shop on a corner/In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” All of these songs which had regional connotations were quickly rejected.

Today, there is just one state that does not have an official state song - our neighbor, New Jersey. It almost had one earlier in the century when it appeared that the state Legislature would adopt the 55-year effort by the late “Red” Mascara of Phillipsburg, New Jersey, by naming his song, “I’m from New Jersey,” but it failed to get enough votes.

Some state songs are really popular and imminently hummable, such as “Georgia on My Mind” (whose recording by Ray Charles was a mega hit) and “Oklahoma” from the smash Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway play of the same name.

I guarantee that you will not go around humming “Pennsylvania,” because it just isn’t that kind of song. It sounds more like an alma mater or, on a good day, a spirited fight song, although I found that the opening reminded me of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Here are the lyrics of the two verses and chorus:

(Verse 1) Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania/Mighty is your name,

Steeped in glory and tradition/Object of acclaim.

Where brave men fought the foe of freedom/Tyranny decried,

’Til the bell of independence/filled the countryside.

(Chorus) Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania,/May your future be,

Filled with honor everlasting/as your history.

(Verse 2) Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania/Blessed by God’s own hand,

Birthplace of a mighty nation/Keystone of the land.

Where first our country’s flag unfolded/Freedom to proclaim,

May the voices of tomorrow/glorify your name.

(Repeat chorus)

The songwriting team of Khoury and Bonner was smart enough not to try to have “Pennsylvania” at the end of a line, because there are few words that rhyme with it.

In “The Pennsylvania Polka,” songwriters Lester Lee and Zeke Manners were more daring and came up with one catchy rhyme:

“ ... Everybody has a mania/to do the polka from Pennsylvania.”

“The Pennsylvania Polka,” published in 1942, became a national hit thanks to recordings by The Andrew Sisters and Frankie Yankovic. A Luzerne County bandleader, Paul Motiska of Dupont, said he was playing the same melody but without lyrics about 20 years earlier in 1923. This may have given rise to the lyric within the song, “It started in Scranton; it’s now number one.” “Scranton” is the only community mentioned in “The Pennsylvania Polka.”

I still think “The Pennsylvania Polka,” immortalized in the hit movie “Groundhog Day,” would have been a more popular choice. I can still see my dad dancing “The Pennsylvania Polka” and “The Beer Barrel Polka” on a Sunday afternoon at the former Summit Hill Rod & Gun Club.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.