I have lived in the great state of Illinois for 28 years, and only once have I heard anyone sing our state song, the unimaginatively titled “Illinois.” It was at Lincoln College, in 1995. C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb was receiving an honorary degree, and former Gov. Jim Thompson was in attendance. The campus choir opened the program with an anthem so soothing it made Andy Williams sound like Motörhead.
“By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois
O’er thy prairies verdant growing, Illinois, Illinois
Comes an echo on the breeze
Rustling through the leafy trees, and its mellow tones are these, Illinois, Illinois”
Thompson listened with a blissful look on his face, as the choir sang of the natural wonders of the state he'd governed for 14 years.
But does anyone else feel the same way about “Illinois”? Does anyone else even know the words, which go on to describe Chicago as “thy great commercial tree” upon “the inland sea"?
Like most official state songs (“Here We Have Idaho,” “Hail! South Dakota”), “Illinois” takes its melody from the sheet music era, and its prosody from the Fireside Poets — John Greenleaf Whittier, James Whitcomb Riley — who were household names in the late 19th Century. The song was composed in the early 1890s by Civil War veteran Charles Chamberlin, to promote Chicago’s bid for the 1893 World’s Fair. It was set to the tune of “Baby Mine” — not the song from Dumbo, but this 1870 romantic melody. Chamberlain’s friend, Col. O.B. Knight, sang “Illinois” here and in Washington, D.C.
In the end, Chicago won the World’s Fair. But it's unclear whether Chamberlin’s description of the state’s gentle rivers and verdant prairies had anything to do with that.
The song's usefulness could have ended there, but in 1925, State Sen. Florence Fifer Bohrer (Bloomington) introduced a bill to name it the state song. Illinois didn’t have a state song, so all the other senators said, "sure." The melody is still played by the Marching Illini during pregame performances before University of Illinois football games. U of I’s Glee Club also sings it.
At this point, though, Illinois can do better than “Illinois.” Plenty of other states have replaced or augmented their official songs with something more contemporary and singable. In 2014, West Virginia added “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Georgians sing “Georgia On My Mind,” while Oklahomans sing “Oklahoma!,” from the musical. Tennessee, not surprisingly for the place where rock and roll and country music were born, has ten state songs, including “Rocky Top,” “Tennessee Waltz” and “Smoky Mountain Rain.”
What about Illinois, though? Which songs evoke our state as well as those? Here are a few contenders for a new state song.
“City of New Orleans,” by Steve Goodman
In 1971, Goodman took the train to visit his in-laws in Mattoon, and was so charmed by the scenery he wrote a song about it. Goodman even rhymed “odyssey” with “Kankakee.” “City of New Orleans” appeared on Goodman’s debut album and was a big hit for both Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson, making it the most famous song inspired by Illinois. “Good morning, America, how are you?” would sound great being sung by a college choir.
“Illinois Blues,” by Skip James
This is an ode to the Great Migration, with Mississippi bluesman James telling the folks back home, “I never had a good time till I got to Illinois.” Drawbacks: the melody is a dirge, the lyrics rhyme “boys” with “Illinois,” and a choir could never reproduce James’s haunting vocals.
“Illinois,” by Dan Fogelberg
Fogelberg, a Peoria native, was trying to make it big on the Southern California yacht rock scene when he wrote this homesick ode to his home state. “Flat on the prairies/ Soil and stone/ Stretching forever/ Taking me home,” is evocative of Central Illinois. Fogelberg’s best song about Illinois, though, is “Same Old Lang Syne,” about running into his high school girlfriend at a Peoria convenience store during a visit home for Christmas.
“Come On! Feel the Illinoise!,” by Sufjan Stevens
Stevens once promised to record an album about every U.S. state. He started with Michigan, but his Fifty States Project ended after Illinois. I guess he realized he wasn’t going to find more inspiration anywhere else. The album is chock full of Illinoisana, including songs about Highland, Jacksonville, Decatur, and “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” inspired by the Superman statue.
“The Illinois Enema Bandit,” by Frank Zappa
Michael Kenyon was a University of Illinois graduate and an auditor for the Illinois Department of Revenue. He was also a serial armed robber who often administered enemas to his victims. His crimes inspired this oddity, which was out there even for Zappa. Then again, probably not the man we want as a symbol of our state.
“Illinois,” by Brett Eldredge.
If we’re looking for a song that expresses the same sentiments as the current state song, but in a musical style accessible to modern listeners, this is a winner. Eldredge grew up in Paris, Illinois, before moving to Nashville to pursue a country music career. “I come from the heart of the Heartland/ Where picture shows, where the corn grows/ In rows and rows of summer greens,” he sings, before rising to a chorus of “And oh the heart will wander/ Beyond that wild blue yonder/ When I get lost in the noise like a whisper I hear the voice of the boy/ Oh from Illinois.” It may be a bit corny, both literally and figuratively, but it speaks both to those who love living in Illinois, and those who regret leaving.