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Harmony for an Official State Song

A Proposal for Rotation, Marketing and Term Limits

by John Weingart
"The New York Times", New Jersey Section, Op Ed page
November 24, 2002

NEW JERSEY likes to talk about a state song but doesn't seem to really want to choose one ("Oh, Say, Can We Get an Official State Song," Nov. 17).

The deliberations over the last 40 years, dominated by Red Mascara's crusade on behalf of his song "I'm From New Jersey," represent a New Jersey problem that can be solved. Let's create a process to select a state song but limit the designation to a specified term. Every five years, the New Jersey Council on the Arts could sponsor a competition and make a selection. The winner would receive publicity, honor and a stipend of, say, $10,000. The council could also choose a dozen additional entries and include them with the winner on a CD that could be sold around the state and distributed more widely through the internet.

There are already many good songs about the state, but the competition and resulting recording would encourage more writing while also helping to bring the better songs and musicians to the attention of wider audiences. The CD, of course, would also help promote New Jersey and perhaps even earn enough money to provide a small return to both the state and the songwriters.

Having the responsibility to choose enough songs for the CD would also enable the Arts Council to honor songs that, for example, portray one part of the state but may not seem an appropriate representation of the state as a whole. Candidates might include some great older songs like "The Long Branch Branch of the Red Bank Bank," "I Found a Peach in Orange New Jersey in Apple Blossom Time" or "Paddling on the Rahway."

It's fun to talk about a state song, but who wants to risk being stuck for all time with a clunker? Moreover, what music fans can say their favorite song about any topic is never going to change? Maybe it would have been fitting for "Born to Run" to have been New Jersey's anthem in the early 1980's (when a bill to that end was introduced in the Legislature), but 20 years later it's hard to remember why.

This year, my nominee would be "The Garden State Stomp," a song whose only words are the names of 80 New Jersey towns, from Allamuchy and Piscataway to Egg Harbor and Double Trouble. The words are amusing and arguably educational to hear, and a term as the New Jersey State Song would be a nice tribute to the song's writer, Dave Van Ronk, the folk and blues musician, who died in February. The song might be appropriate for a five-year term but would be an unacceptable choice for the hundreds of towns not mentioned if we continue to try to agree on only one song to represent the entire state forever.

The trouble with our periodic bursts of interest in this subject now is that they fall under a cloud of failure. Selecting a term-limited state song would enable New Jersey to turn our past hesitancy into virtue. Twice a decade we could have a statewide, spirited, light-hearted discussion about the song candidates knowing that a winner would be chosen and that, no matter how disagreeable or even embarrassing some might consider the selection, the next one might be more to our liking.

This proposal should be considered by the Legislature early in the new year as members prepare to complete a record of accomplishment from which they can run for re-election in November. While a number of bills on the subject have already been introduced as they have been every year for decades, a new bill should be prepared that establishes that every five years the Arts Council will select a new New Jersey State Song.

I suggest that the bill stipulate that the first state song, for a term of three years, be "I'm From New Jersey" to reward Red Mascara at least for his persistence and his name if not for the song itself. The three-year designation would give Mr. Mascara at age 80 the recognition he has long sought while also giving the Arts Council ample time to design a good process for the subsequent competitions. The law should state that while a new song will be selected every five years, the previous winners gain emeritus status and are forever after considered "one of New Jersey's official state songs." The songwriters, including Mr. Mascara, will thus be protected and able to enjoy whatever limited career boost and immortality their creation engenders.

By taking action now, legislators will be able to claim credit for solving a minute but seemingly intractable problem. As an added benefit, those who believe that term limits for officeholders diminish the competence and capabilities of legislative bodies will be able to claim that they nevertheless do support such limits when they make sense.

John Weingart is associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers and host of "Music You Can't Hear On The Radio", New Jersey's oldest program of folk music and bluegrass, on WPRB-FM and WPRB.com.

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