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Your Say: Aug. 29-Sept. 5, 2019

Singing with Tom Wisner to ­Commemorate Maryland’s Old Line

      Had it not been for 400 men from Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, we might all be drinking our spot of tea every afternoon at 3pm with crumpets.
     In August 1776, those Marylanders fought in the first and largest battle of the American Revolution on Brooklyn Heights in New York.
     The Maryland line was called to defend General George Washington’s flank after his army was surrounded and forced to retreat. Of the 400 men, only 144 survived the withering Redcoat fire. But the line held long enough for the Americans to slip away. From their heroism, Maryland gets its designation as The Old Line State.
     My forbearer, Thomas Norris, was among those who fought in the Maryland regiment.
     Seven years later, Cornwalis would surrender to Washington at Yorktown. Historians agree that had it not been for the sacrifice of the Maryland men, the American Revolution would have ended just as it was beginning.
      Brooklyners commemorate the sacrifice every August at the historic Greenwood Cemetery, a 478-acre National Historic Landmark and arboretum in the heart of the borough. 
     I joined the commemoration this year, traveling to Brooklyn to sing the tribute to The Old Line, the final song written by Bard of the Chesapeake Tom Wisner before his death from lung cancer in 2010.
     Yet when invited to Brooklyn, a place I had never been nor thought to go, I had told organizer and old friend Roberta Reeves “the chances are slim to none.”
    Both Roberta and I went a long way back with the Bard of the Chesapeake.
I first met Tom in 1984 when he put together a program called Southern Maryland Today, featuring storytellers and singers. He recruited my twin brother and me, along with African American church choirs and storytellers like the late Alec Kellum from Smith Island, to sing at three concerts in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties. Our friendship stretched over three decades.
     Roberta had visited Tom, as I had, as the 79-year-old storyteller-songwriter lay dying at Burnett-Calvert Hospice House in Prince Frederick. She stayed with Tom as he penned his last ballad, a tribute to The Old Line. She noted that he labored over each line, “wanting to get it right.”
     Before succumbing, Wisner performed the song for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
     Now, Roberta was insistent.
     I came, traveling for hours by bus, and I sang. The roughly 300 people in attendance at the Aug. 25 ceremony in Brooklyn loved Tom’s song and seemed to grasp as he did, a foreboding future, when he wrote: We are deep in a darkened time, my country is not dead or dying. Come and gather round these truths we share. Leave division lying there. In our unity we will serve this land of ours.
      In the end, of course, the experience was rewarding and worthwhile.
–Joseph Norris, St. Mary’s County