It is time to take seriously the threat that New Jersey may soon be saddled with five officially designated state songs. Earlier this month, by a vote of 28-3, the state Senate passed S-2438, which would for the first time name the state’s song, anthem, children’s song, ballad, and popular song. If the Assembly follows suit, a small group of songs that some legislators apparently cherish in 2014-2015 will be the ones trotted out at public events for generations to come.
Perhaps some residents will listen to the songs anointed by the Senate and conclude that “I’m From New Jersey,” “Be Proud To Be In New Jersey,” “New Jersey My Home,” and “New Jersey U.S.A.” are among the best past and present state songwriters have to offer. They may even understand the Senate’s wisdom in naming a fifth song known to very, very few people — “Be Proud To Be In New Jersey” — as the “state popular song.” But why make these selections permanent when there is a better way?
The Assembly should amend the Senate bill to create a process for choosing a state song under which the designation will be for a specified term. Every five years, the New Jersey Council on the Arts could sponsor a competition, include a process for public input, and make a selection. The winner would receive publicity, honor, and perhaps a small honorarium. The council could also choose a dozen additional entries and include them with the winner on a CD that could be sold online and at shops and rest areas.
There already are many good songs about New Jersey. Every year or two on my weekly radio show, I devote an entire program to songs about the state and have no trouble filling three hours. But this new competition and resulting recordings would encourage more writing while also helping bring some of the better songs and musicians to the attention of wider audiences.
Having the responsibility to choose enough songs for the CD would also enable the Arts Council to honor songs that may not seem an appropriate representation of the state as a whole but do portray one region or event well. Some of the songs that could then be considered are “I Found a Peach in Orange New Jersey in Apple Blossom Time,” “The Long Branch Branch of the Red Bank Bank,” and “We Had Five Governors In Eight Days.”
It’s fun to talk about a state song and to admire the name and tenacity of Red Mascara, who has spent half a century lobbying to have his composition, “I’m From New Jersey,” become the official state song. Buy why risk being stuck for all time with a clunker? Moreover, what music fans can say that their favorite song about any topic is never going to change?
To reward and honor Mr. Mascara, perhaps the bill establishing this process should stipulate that “I’m From New Jersey” be the first state song.” A three- or five-year designation would grant Mr. Mascara the recognition he has long sought for his composition while also giving the Arts Council ample time to design a workable process for subsequent competitions.
The law should stipulate that every five years when a while a new song is selected, 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 creations engender.
Term limits may not make much sense for individual elected leaders but they are a perfect vehicle here. Twice a decade we would have a statewide, spirited, light-hearted discussion about a group of nominated songs knowing that a winner would be chosen but that no matter how disagreeable or even embarrassing some might consider the selection, the next one may well be more to our liking.