Much has been written about former Gov. Phil Batt since his passing on March 4. He was praised as a human rights advocate, for his role in removing nuclear waste from Idaho, for his fairness, decency and much more.
One of my favorite memories of him, however, is of his music.
My introduction to the late governor was unorthodox, to say the least. He was a state senator at the time; I was a fledgling columnist assigned to do color stories about the legislature. I’d just seated myself in the gallery overlooking the Senate when Batt and then state senator Jim Risch spotted me, stuck out their tongues, put their thumbs in their ears and wiggled their fingers.
It could have been taken as an insult, but it was done in good humor. They both laughed afterward, as I did. And in years to come I got to know the former state senator, lieutenant governor and governor for the good man he was.
A good man and a good musician and song writer. He was quoted as saying that playing the clarinet was “one of the most enjoyable parts of my life. I think music is magic.”
I heard him play his clarinet a few times and thought he played well, but what absolutely knocked me out was a song he wrote about Idaho. Hearing it for the first time at a grade school choir performance, my first thought was that it would make a great Idaho state song.
The official state song, of course, is “And Here We Have Idaho.” Originally composed more than a century ago, its melody and lyrics may have been fine for their time but seem dated at best by contemporary standards.
These are the lyrics to the chorus, the one part of the song most of us can remember:
And here we have Idaho
Winning her way to fame
Silver and gold in the sunlight blaze
And romance lies in her name
Singing, we’re singing of you
Ah, proudly too
All our lives through, we’ll go
Singing, singing of you,
Singing of Idaho.
Really? Winning our way to fame? And have you ever known anyone who spends his or her whole life through singing of Idaho?
Compare that with the chorus of Batt’s Idaho song:
Where the winds of love and friendship always blow
There’s a freedom in the sky
And I’ll live here till I die
Idaho, Idaho, Idaho
Short and to the point. Like Batt himself.
Reading the lyrics doesn’t do justice to the song, though. Its melody is catchy, charming. To truly appreciate it, you have to hear it sung. Here’s a link you can use to do that:
It was performed in the Statehouse rotunda during a service honoring the late governor on March 9. Boisean Margaret Lawrence directed the choir that day, as she did many times with Batt playing his clarinet, including the first time I heard the song, in 2008 at Jackson Elementary School. It was the last choir performance at the school, which was closing after 48 years.
Lawrence called the late governor’s song “a snapshot into Idaho’s history. It’s timeless in that respect. It touches on Chief Joseph, the sourdoughs in mining, farming. It’s an Idaho history lesson for children and adults also.”
The chorus, she added, is “one of those joyful moments in life when you get to sing with gusto. Children love it and when I have invited adults to join in, they too have proven its melodic accessibility by the exuberance in which they perform – loud and proud.”
With due respect, the same can’t be said for “And Here We Have Idaho,” which was written in 1915 and adopted as our state song in 1931. People don’t write or sing songs like that any more. We don’t drive Model T’s any more, either. Batt’s accessible melody and moving lyrics would comprise a state song we could sing loud and proud.
Changing state songs isn’t without precedent. Oregon and Mississippi both changed lyrics that were considered racist in their state songs.
Colorado, while not scrapping “Where the Columbines Grow,” added John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” as a second state song.
Legislators in W. Virginia have tried to make Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” that state’s official state song. They haven’t succeeded yet, but time and public sentiment may be on their side. Adopted as West Virginia University’s theme song, it has been played to rousing applause before every home football game for decades.
What better way to honor a governor that virtually everyone liked and admired – I never heard anyone say a bad word about him – than to make his song our official state song? It would be an improvement on what we have now, and generations of Idahoans would actually enjoy singing it.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.