Tuesday, September 3, 2019

William Gaston and the Swiss Bell Ringers

or, how North Carolina got its state song

by John B. Green III

William Gaston (1778-1844) - native New Bernian, prominent attorney, U.S. Congressman, North Carolina Supreme Court justice, champion of religious freedom - accomplished much during his lifetime by which he might be remembered today. Yet the average North Carolinian, if asked to identify Gaston, would probably either draw a blank or, after some thought, declare him to be the author of the state song. They might not know the words or the tune, but somewhere, probably in elementary school, they were taught that Gaston wrote The Old North State

Engraved portrait of William Gaston, mid-19th century.

The origin of the North Carolina state song, with slight variations, is as follows.  About the year 1835, a troupe of Swiss Bell Ringers, or in some versions, Tyrolean Singers, gave a concert in Raleigh. The tune of one of the songs presented proved very popular with the audience. William Gaston was living and working in Raleigh at that time while serving on the state supreme court. Gaston became familiar with the tune, liked it, and at some point decided to write lyrics for the song that would honor North Carolina and might serve as a state anthem. The tune, with Gaston's lyrics, quickly became popular as The Old North State and was sung and enjoyed by generations of North Carolinians.  The title, by the way, refers to North Carolina's status as the northern-most of the two Carolinas and probably dates to early 19th century.

William Gaston's law office in Raleigh, NC, where he is said to have composed The Old North State. From Mrs. E.E. Randolph, "The Old North State" A Study Lesson on the State Song, Raleigh, NC: State Superintendent of Public Instruction, n.d.
The Old North State was published numerous times over the years but never received any official sanction as the state song until 1927. In that year the North Carolina legislature, responding to a request from the North Carolina Daughters of the Confederacy, passed an act which ordered that William Gaston's song "known as 'The Old North State,' as hereinafter written, be and the same is hereby adopted and declared to be the official song of the State of North Carolina."

The Old North State, a Patriotic Song, written by the late Wm. Gaston of North Carolina, Philadelphia: George Willig, 1844.  Sheet music published in the year that William Gaston died.

The lyrics of the first verse and chorus, essentially as Gaston wrote them, and codified by the legislature, follow:

Carolina! Carolina! Heaven's blessings attend her!
While we live we will cherish, protect and defend her;
Though the scorner may sneer at and witlings defame her,
Our hearts swell with gladness whenever we name her.

Hurrah! Hurrah! The Old North State forever!
Hurrah! Hurrah!, the good Old North State!