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West Virginia’s Three State Songs

By Richard Ramella

It is unusual for a state to have more than one official song. West Virginia has three. At least three people — including an 11-year old boy — had creative voices in writing the first song more than 100 years ago. A military officer wrote the second after distinguished service in World War II. And a Charleston jazz musician began composing the third while she was asleep in the early 1960's.

“The West Virginia Hills,” with words by Ellen Ruddell King and music and chorus by Henry Everett Engle, was completed in 1885 in Gilmer County.

“West Virginia, My Home Sweet Home” appeared in 1947 and was composed by Col. Julian G. Hearne, Jr., a Wheeling native, attorney, and career military officer.

The third song, “This Is My West Virginia,” was written by Charleston musician and performer Iris Bell in 1962.

Each of these three songs had received an official designation from the State Legislature over the years. “West Virginia, My Home Sweet Home” was declared the first official state song in 1947. In 1961, an edited and approved version of “The West Virginia Hills” was also made an official state song. In 1962, “This Is My West Virginia” was named the official Centennial Song of West Virginia. Understandably, this resulted in considerable confusion.

To resolve the matter, all three songs were declared official and equal by House Concurrent Resolution No. 19, adopted by the State Legislature on February 28, 1963. The Secretary of State’s office is guardian of the official versions.

Though they are melodic and heartfelt, Hearne’s and Bell’s works have not been performed often. Long before it was declared official, however, “The West Virginia Hills” was used on many public occasions. And for nearly four generations — in those days when people more often gathered to sing for pleasure — the old anthem proved a favorite. It has sweep and majesty and thunder, especially its inspired chorus, which singers divide into a call and echoed reply, singing, “Oh the hills (beautiful hills), Beautiful hills (beautiful hills), How I love those West Virginia hills!” The three songs represent early, middle, and modern eras of the state’s history. And here’s how each came to be.

On March 7, 2014, the West Virginia Legislature added a fourth official state song: “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” performed by John Denver (1971) and written by Bill Danoff, Tammy Nivert, and John Denver.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.