Raucous version of WA state song would make composer ‘turn in her grave’
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington has sometimes been at the center of national and international media attention. Governor Jay Inslee and President Trump have famously battled in a war of words, and now it looks like we might be making great strides in flattening the curve.
All of this can sometimes make us feel a little patriotic about Washington, our home.
And not many people know that “Washington, My Home” is the official state song:
Washington my home;
Where ever I may roam;
This is my land, my native land,
Washington, my home.
Our verdant forest green,
Caressed by silvery stream;
From mountain peak to fields of wheat.
Washington, my home.
“Washington, My Home” was written by Helen Davis back in the 1950s, and officially adopted as the state song on March 18, 1959. Even fewer might remember back in the 1980s when original “Almost LIVE!” KING TV host Ross Shafer tried unsuccessfully to get “Louie, Louie” named the state song instead – and that was the time, ironically, when many first became aware of the existence of “Washington, My Home.”
The song came to mind late last month, when President Trump made denigrating remarks about Washington or Governor Inslee during a daily briefing. I felt a need to demonstrate the pride I have for my home state, so I posted on Facebook a link to a YouTube clip of “Washington, My Home.”
It didn’t take long for a longtime KIRO Radio listener named Bill Collins to respond. Collins wrote that back in the 1950s, he and his family lived in South Bend, Washington – the county seat of Pacific County in the southwest part of the state. Their next door neighbor was “Washington, My Home” composer Helen Davis and her husband Chauncey.
Collins spoke with KIRO Radio a few days ago. He said that Helen and Chauncey Davis were like extended family to him and his siblings during the five years the Collins lived in South Bend.
“They were wonderful,” Collins said. “Chauncey and Helen were just wonderful people, very friendly. Helen was very talkative and very outgoing, and they treated us like their own grandchildren.”
Which even meant watching the original Walt Disney program on TV, though the Collins family didn’t yet have their own set.
“I remember my mother making sure we had our pajamas and our bathrobes and slippers on, and we’d walk across the driveway to their house,” Collins said. “We’d watch the show and come right back” and go straight to bed.
In addition to a TV set, the Davis family also had a piano.
“[Helen] would play songs we knew and songs that she said she wrote, and then she played a song that she wrote about the state of Washington,” Collins said. “We were just little kids at the time … we thought it was it was neat. It was a nice song, but we didn’t think much about it after that.”
But one day a few years later, Bill Collins’ mom called to him and his brother from downstairs. By this time, the Collins family had their own TV set.
“She said get down here quick, there’s something on TV you want to see,” Collins said. “And so we got downstairs and looked at the TV, and who’s on TV? Helen Davis … and there she was … in Olympia in the Capitol building in front of all the members of the state Legislature playing the song that she played for us in her living room.”
It made a big impression on the young Bill Collins.
“We thought that was so cool,” Collins gushed. “We knew her. We knew Helen Davis, and so it was a big deal to us.”
Bill thinks that long-ago TV appearance by his neighbor Helen Davis was probably the day in 1959 when “Washington, My Home” became the state song.
Of course, the link that Bill Collins commented on via Facebook didn’t lead to the Helen Davis version of “Washington, My Home.”
Bill Collins is pretty sure he knows how Helen Davis would have felt about Sicko’s version of “Washington, My Home.”
“When I saw [the link] and played it,” Collins said. “My first thought was Helen would be turning over in her grave.”
“I’m not a fan of that kind of music,” he added, though in a very good-natured way.
All of this had me wondering what inspired Sicko to record our state song in the first place. With help from a friend, I connected with the three original members of Sicko for a social-distancing approved “Google Hangout” (my first ever) last week.
Josh Rubin told me that Sicko was formed in Seattle in October 1991 by Ean Hernandez (guitar, bass and vocals) and Denny Bartlett (guitar, bass and vocals) with Rubin rounding out the lineup on drums. Hernandez and Bartlett had met earlier and played in bands at Washington State University; they met Josh in Seattle through mutual friends.
And the name of the band?
“I think there was a friend of Ean and Denny in college named Kathy, and she used to call them ‘sickos,’” Rubin said.
“It was kind of a funny thing,” Rubin said. “We had all been in a lot of bands before, and we were kind of looking for a name and someone [suggested] ‘Sicko.’ It was sort of like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s kind of funny, you know, maybe that’s a temporary thing, you know.’”
“Here we are almost 30 years later,” he said, laughing.
Ean Hernandez says that Sicko was a pop-punk band influenced by bands such as Stiff Little Fingers and Hüsker Dü, and this meant that they were “out of step with the ‘grunge revolution’ in Seattle” that was underway in the early 1990s.
But Sicko did find a loyal fan base and put out a lot of records and played a lot of shows. Though all three have moved on to different bands and other careers, they recently released a compilation, and performed several live dates around the United States.
“We had more activity in about five months than we had in [the previous] 20 years,” Hernandez said. “And just in the nick of time for everything to go sideways” with the pandemic and bans on public gatherings.
The band’s version of “Washington My Home” was recorded around 1996 for a compilation CD called “Coolidge 50” that featured one band from each state performing their state’s official song.
The fact that Washington even had a state song came as a surprise to the members of Sicko.
“I don’t think any of us knew Washington even had a state song much less what it was,” Denny Bartlett said. “And the [record company] guy, when he asked us to do it, he basically just sent us some sheet music.”
“The ‘Fight, Fight, Fights’ were artistic license,” said drummer Josh Rubin, referring to a spirited refrain the band added to their recording of the song.
“Which should give you an idea of the extent of our artistry,” added Ean Hernandez, chuckling.
As to what Sicko had to work with in 1996 in order to understand how to play a song they had never heard before, Denny Bartlett says the mid 1990s was a different time.
“Back when we got this sheet music, you couldn’t just go on YouTube and find a version of it somewhere,” Bartlett said. “I was basically just trying to remember how to read music, and that didn’t go very well. So I just kind of learned sort of how the song went as best as I could, and then added some stuff to it.”
“We just kind of made it up as we went along,” Bartlett said. “It’s weird now to go on YouTube and pull up all these choirs singing the song and go, ‘Oh really? That’s a different song.’”
The members of Sicko were heartened to learn that their version of “Washington, My Home” has been used often on KIRO Radio to introduce history stories about Washington.
While Helen Davis passed away on December 31, 1992 — several years, perhaps thankfully, before the Sicko version of “Washington, My Home” was released — had other influential people taken note of the band’s musical efforts to honor the Evergreen State?
This question jogged a memory for Ean and Josh.
“Didn’t we get a letter from the governor?” Hernandez asked.
“We sent it to Gary Locke when he was the governor, and we got a letter back,” Rubin said. “He said that they played it at a staff meeting, and [he] thanked us for sending it to them. That’s the only official feedback we’ve ever received.”
So, not exactly a ringing endorsement?
“That’s on the level of the type of critical acclaim and success that we’re used to,” said Ean Hernandez, laughing along with Denny and Josh.
KIRO Radio did reach out to Governor Inslee’s office on Tuesday to see if he had ever heard the Sicko version of “Washington, My Home” and, if so, what he thought of it. As of Wednesday morning, the governor’s office has yet to respond.
And that’s completely understandable. They have far, far more important business to attend to these days.
As Sicko says, “Fight, Fight, Fight!”