The national media portray the Virginia state song contest as scandalous. Are they on the point or just poking fun at our quirky Commonwealth? 

Ditty Debate

It's the kind of song that sticks in your head like a Jay Tronfeld commercial jingle. It's the kind of song that swells the chests of sentimentalists like state Sen. Stephen H. Martin, who gladly sings it on the spot. And if it becomes Virginia's next state song, Jimmy and Donna Dean's "Virginia" is the kind of song nobody will listen to.

Still the duo hopes that when the General Assembly convenes early next year, their song will be selected the new anthem of the Old Dominion.

But recently the Deans have been accused of foul play by sore losers whose song entries didn't make the cut. Last month, Northern Virginia resident Ray Parker filed a $10.1 million lawsuit against the commonwealth because he feels the subcommittee did not give his song the same consideration it gave to contestants such as the Deans. And now the national media —which seemingly loves to mock the Virginia couple for their trite country love songs and sausage empire — roasts the duo for doing more than innocently crossing their fingers.

The front page of the Nov. 2 Washington Post chides the state song contest as an exercise in greasy politics citing that the Deans contributed $1,750 to the campaign of Sen. Martin — who sits on the selection subcommittee — and that the couple also donated sausage to Virginia schools in order to receive favorable kiddie endorsements. The Deans deny that the sausage they gave to area schoolchildren had anything to do with the contest. And the Deans say they have always given financial support to Virginia politicians they believe are the most qualified.

Just weeks after the Post article appeared, a less serious People magazine story flexed its appeal to the masses with a diluted five-paragraph version of the mess, calling it a "government scandal." A full-page picture shows Dean, 71, and Donna, 46, lovingly harmonizing at the piano with the state flag of Virginia visible behind Dean's crisp white cowboy hat. "I thought the picture was pretty good," drawls Dean. "But the article didn't say much."

People senior writer Alex Tresniowski says the mild controversy is just the news that appeals to middle-American political sensibilities. "It is an odd little story with the perfect twist," tells Tresniowski, who wrote the article from a field reporter's file without ever interviewing the Deans. "We thought, here's this guy who's usually so laid back worked up about something." But Tresniowski soon realized quite the opposite: that the Deans are bemused by the controversy and the attention, not outraged.

While the Post levied its serious hard-news criticism of the Deans and the whole affair, People offered the public a condescendingly simple Rockwellian version, showing the Deans bright-eyed on one page and penning them unscrupulous on the next.

Both articles delight at the chance to pepper as many sausage-related quips — "fat's in the fire," "suspicious links," "celebrity sausagemeister" — as possible, so that by the end even the most sardonic reader grows tired of the puns.

The whole state song selection process already is a headache for Sen. Martin. "I was a friend of the Deans long before they gave any thought to writing the song," he says, annoyed that accusations have been taken so seriously. "I've spent more than 20 hours just listening to all of them."

Martin says he knew the situation would disappoint people early on, and he isn't surprised that some even feel slighted. But Parker's lawsuit, he says shrilly, "is just so ludicrous." It's life, part of the process of paring down 339 songs to eight. And the Deans, he feels, simply have the best song. "The assumption is that I'm out here lobbying for their song. I haven't had any conversation with any commission members about any song."

Martin says his connection with the Deans has been taken out of context, and he adamantly stands by "Virginia" as the best song of the bunch.

Its rhythm builds slowly, almost too slowly — and it twangs like a country polka. It doesn't require a good voice to carry it and the two verses and simple chorus are as easy to remember as "The Farmer in the Dell." But most of all, "Virginia" is the kind of song that's anthemic, or so say the Deans, who learned the word from a Virginia Commonwealth University music professor. Donna wrote the song in 1997 and Jimmy set it to music he'd intended as the Varina High School alma mater.

They say the song's anthemic quality — think "The Star Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful," or "Oklahoma!" — is the reason their song is the leading contender, not campaign contributions or free sausage.

"Jimmy has a Grammy," says Donna Dean. That's more than most Virginians trying to qualify their song as a finalist.

Dean acknowledges it would be a great thrill for their song to be chosen, just the kind of legacy he'd hope to leave the state he loves best. "We've covered a small amount of the beauty of Virginia," he says.

Whether the Deans lassoed any votes because of influence peddling or sausage will remain, for now, a puzzle that few people will spend time to solve. Next year, apart from fifth-graders doing a report on Virginia, even fewer will know just what Virginia's state song is.

The Deans' "Virginia" is not a done deal. The General Assembly's 13-member song subcommittee won't take its final vote for a few more months. And despite the media jeers, Virginians should rejoice that 339 people actually cared enough about their state song to write one. "Our song in New York is a silly little jingle made up by advertising people," and is impossible to sing, says People's Tresniowski.

That wouldn't fly in Virginia. "Our song's singable," chirps Dean. Donna cuts him off in mid-sentence to add what she feels is the real spice of it: "It's

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