Before 2015 departs on a wisp of carols and Auld Lange Syne, let’s reflect on that other genre of musical celebration, the official song. In this case, the official County song. Our official County song.
While the ordinance for a shoveled sidewalk needs only snow in the forecast to pop back into civic consciousness, “Arlington” enjoys no such prompt. It is not etched in classrooms nor sung at sporting events. It’s never before appeared on a County webpage.
But back on the first Saturday morning of October 1970, a unanimous County Board deemed Ernest K. Emurian’s words and melody worthy of a place in Arlington’s official identity. Reasoning for such approval sits right there in the lyrics of the first verse: “[T]he songs of home are ones we really cherish/For home is the place we love the best.”
It was love in E flat and 4/4 time, consummated with a 10,000-copy print run funded by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, prime sponsor for the song’s adoption.
The composer, the Reverend Ernest Emurian, was already a local institution, a beloved and prolific man. Pastor of Cherrydale United Methodist Church, he had lived in the County for seven years before attempting his anthem for Arlington. The inspiration was his long-held belief that “if a place is worth living in, it is worth singing about.”
As a young minister in Lynchburg, Emurian had literally sung that city’s praises. Then Portsmouth’s. But “Arlington” would ultimately be the one work to win government sanction among the hundreds of hymns, folk ballads, historical story-songs and holiday pieces Emurian wrote in his lifetime. He also found time to publish several histories of popular gospel and secular tunes. And he created a string of church plays and pageants including a still-performed live Last Supper that animates da Vinci’s mural.
But it was the songs that came out of him like “a woman having a baby,” he told the Washington Post.
“It was God’s gift coming through me,” Emurian explained to columnist Bob Levey in 1979. Once the music “starts fermenting, it won’t let you go until it’s been resolved.“ To be followed quickly by the next song and the one after that. They could hit at any time, often as late-night light bulb moments.
While hometown pride provided “that spark” for “Arlington,” looking back. Emurian acknowledged difficulty in capturing the County’s essence. These were the transition years–after the Pentagon arrived and the trolleys left but before Metro, urban villages, I-66 and later a parody’s worth of Starbucks stores.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “Arlington is a tough place to love, because it’s so many different places. You might as well write one song about Rosslyn, another about Ballston, another about the cemetery.”
In the end, Emurian settled on just Arlington National Cemetery—with its Lee Mansion and “northern Virginia hillside, Where Potomac’s waters flow”– as his song’s sole local reference. It anchored both the second verse and his chorus, worthy postcard icons west of the river but, needless to say, purely federal property without a single living resident.
The second verse takes in the mansion’s point of view looking east, to Washington, “Whose memorials and monuments remind us/Of those who have lived to make men free.” A sentimental Beltway bullseye with Arlington as the catapult.
It was enough.
The song’s unimpeachable patriotism and Chamber of Commerce support made debate unnecessary in the Board Room that fall Saturday morning in 1970. Regardless, the five middle-aged men comprising the Board were powerless facing 23 young ladies decked out in colonial frocks and caps, ready to give “Arlington” its choral debut accompanied by their songwriting pastor at the keyboards.
The Board members grabbed sheet music and joined in. “Arlington” was history.
. . .
There were memorable moments to follow in those first official years as the tune enjoyed a certain niche heading toward the U.S. Bicentennial. With foresight, Emurian also issued a special musical edition of the Pledge of Allegiance. For a time, “Arlington” became one of the homegrown staples of the County Fair, performed by Job’s Daughters International, the Masonic-sponsored fraternal group of young women that included many of the Cherrydale United Methodist singers.
As late as 2006, Job’s Daughters were still selling the song. They gave a featured performance at the Court House for the June opening of an Arlington Historical Society exhibit on County constitutional offices. VIPs listened politely but made no attempt to emulate the singing Board of ‘70.
Then things got quiet for “Arlington,” as quiet as the four dozen copies of the Chamber’s sheet music kept in a drab folder in Central Library’s Center for Local History. Fair performances came to an end and Job’s Daughters grew up and moved on. In the words of Emurian’s church pianist Virginia Lee Dodge, “we don’t have the girls we used to have. People aren’t turning out like they used to.”
At the time of adoption, Board Chairman Ned Thomas had considered “Arlington” a potential trend-setter, telling those at the meeting that “This will probably serve as a model for other counties, don’t you imagine?”
Forty-five years later, Arlington’s tune remains unique in Northern Virginia. But just last year Appomattox County made a Civil War soldier saga called “Twelve Unknown” its official song. That Board approval was also unanimous.
Asked for comment, the Virginia Association of Counties told the Lynchburg News & Advance it was “not aware of other official county songs in the state.”
Such confusion also persists just across the Potomac.
Besides its hefty cameo in “Arlington,” Washington D.C. may still have an official song of its own, selected in a 1951 Washington Post contest and written by future head Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd. A few years ago Post columnist John Kelly could not determine the definitive status of “Washington.”
. . .
Pastor Emurian was with Cherrydale United Methodist for 19 years before retiring in 1981 to continued intellectual pursuits and travel. Throughout that unusually lengthy church tenure, the songs never let up — including tributes to space exploration, “Bless Thou the Astronauts,” and a lyrical take on Watergate, “When They Play That Great Tape in the Sky.” Although he didn’t live there, he even wrote his own “Washington” tune for the nation’s capital.
Emurian died in 2004 at age 92 and is buried beside his wife Margaret in Arlington’s Columbia Gardens.
Some of that work is at its most accessible through YouTube, including vintage 1960s recordings of his Christmas songs as performed by the Children’s Choir of Cherrydale United Methodist. Mrs. Dodge is on piano. Emurian delivers kindly introductions. The results are nothing less than charming.
“What Did Santa Get for Christmas?”, “If I Could Be a Child Again” and the other Cherrydale carols could hold their own against the classics.
As for “Arlington,” no period recordings seem to exist, although news crews were definitely in the room 45 years ago when the Board, the Chamber of Commerce, 23 young ladies dressed like Martha Washington and their prolific pastor gave the County a musical identity.
Adapting Emurian’s philosophy for today, if a place is worth living in, its official song is worth an upload.