"the kid blew us away with his resourcefulness and appeal to our hearts" - anonymous
Twenty-six-year-old McAlester native and state representative George Nigh had loved the soaring theme song of Rogers and Hammerstein’s smash Broadway musical Oklahoma! since he first heard it in high school during World War II. Now, in 1953, he intended to make it the official state song. A fellow legislator objected, however, decrying the work of “two New York Jews” and tearfully pleading for retention of the now-painfully archaic state song “Oklahoma—A Toast.”
Young but shrewd, Nigh delayed voting on the bill for 24 hours. Meanwhile, he went to work. The next day, he secured permission for the choir of the Oklahoma College for Women—now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma—in Chickasha to entertain his fellow legislators with songs from Oklahoma!, which they had just performed. A magnificent piano from a fellow solon’s Jenkins Music Store accompanied them.
Oklahoma historian, John Dwyer, has published his 2nd volume of Oklahoma history. SoonerPolitics now carries Mr. Dwyer's latest narratives in our Oklahoma History Blog. His media site has some great articles taken from the pages of his great literary treasury.
This story features the mastery of the young prodigy lawmaker, in his legislative prowess.
It is perhaps the best state history textbook we've ever reviewed. Every high school student should be studying state history from this text.
Then, Nigh’s now-famous high school buddy, Ridge Bond, who had starred in Oklahoma!’s lead role of Curly on Broadway for years, burst into the chamber, in Western attire. Hands on his belt buckle, he bellowed: “O-------k! Lahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain!”
Within seconds, the entire house of representatives was on their feet, singing and clapping. Moments later, Nigh called for a vote on his bill making Oklahoma! the state song. It swept through the house and senate to passage. It didn’t hurt that 300 spectators in the gallery had thundered their own approval of the song during the house performance.
“I put all those people up there!” Nigh later said.
George Nigh started public service 70 years ago. He went on to become both Lt. Governor, and Oklahoma's longest serving governor, in state history. One of his supreme court appointees is still serving on the high court.
George Nigh and his family still reside in Oklahoma.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within the book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
Former Governor, George Nigh sat down with Tulsa radio legend, John Erling, to do an interview for the Oklahoma Historical society.
In that conversation, Nigh elaborates on the strategy he employed to change the state song.
John Erling: In ‘53, Oklahoma had its state song, which was Oklahoma, A Toast.
George Nigh: Yeah.
JE: Somehow you as a young legislator didn’t feel that song was good enough.
GN: Let me fast forward, as lieutenant governor, I asked the legislature to make the lieutenant governor chairman of tourism and recreation. For 12 years, I was chairman of promoting Oklahoma. People used to call me Oklahoma’s cheerleader.
Now, I want to go back then, from that day, go back to 1943. I’m upstairs in our house in McAlester, no air conditioning. I’m laying on my bed, windows are open and I got the radio on and it says, kid would have. Even today, the iPods, well, I just had a radio on.
I suddenly sat up and said, “They’re singing about my state.” I can remember exactly the first time I ever heard this song, Oklahoma. Back in those days, they had Lucky Strike Hit Parade and every Saturday night, Lucky Strike Cigarettes sponsored a program. They counted down the ten most popular songs in the nation.
Four or five songs from a stage play about our state made number one on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade. It’s the most known state or country song around the world to this day. I’m just this kid in high school and I said, “ Wow.” Little did I know then, I go to the legislature in 1953, ten years later.
I thought, that song, that’s the excitement around the world about our state. I’m tired of John Steinbeck. In fact, I took privileges of the floor in the semi-centennial for the State of Oklahoma. They invited John Steinbeck to be the guest of honor. The guy who wrote The Grapes of Wrath. The guy who put Oklahoma, gave it its image that to this day, holds us back.
I took privileges of the floor and I said, “I can’t believe he’s going to be the guest of honor, “ in 1957, at our 50th celebration. They withdrew the invitation. That was ‘57, so in ‘53, I decided that I wanted the image of Oklahoma to be like the stage play. I introduced the bill to change it from Oklahoma, A Toast, to Oklahoma, from the stage play Oklahoma!
JE: Well, it wasn’t all that easy.
GN: It was not ea–Let me tell you. I was teaching Oklahoma history. I thought it’d be a piece of cake. Everybody’s saying, “Oklahoma, “ wherever you went. Fifty foreign countries, Oklahoma was produced on stage. I introduced this bill to change it. I thought, “Piece of cake.” A guy I call, “Old Man Huff” and he’s probably 20 years younger than I am today, but he was Old Man Huff at that time, he also taught Oklahoma history, I think over in Ada.
He took the position to oppose my bill. I couldn’t believe it. There was only microphone in those days in the legislature and he got up and he started hollering and screaming and preaching. He said, “I can’t believe you’re going to change a song that was written by pioneer, steeped in tradition and couched in history, and you want to change it to a play written ...” I won’t forget this phrase, “You want to change it to a play written by two New York Jews who’ve never even been to Oklahoma? And they say, ‘taters and ter-may-ters’?”
I go, “Whoa.” I’m looking around and he is making this impaction plea and he says, “This is our song.” He starts singing Oklahoma, A Toast. He leaves the microphone and starts walking on the floor singing, “Oklahoma, Oklahoma, fairest daughter of the West.”
He’s walking at and he gets the legislators by the arm and makes them stand. It’s the state song. “Oklahoma, Oklahoma, it’s the land I love the best.” He just walks all over the legislature and he still got the floor, and so I can’t interrupt him. He starts crying.
Tears are coming down his cheeks, and it ends, “But I have not told the half, so I give you Oklahoma. it’s a toast we all can quaff.”
I said, “Quaff? He won’t tater or ter-may-ter, but he’ll quaff? Not quoff, he’ll quaff.” Anyway, I looked around and I saw that bill going down the toilet. That wasn’t a good phrase in those days. You’re just flushing it away. I asked for unanimous consent to postpone consideration of that legislation for one legislative day.
Old Man Huff, didn’t catch on to what I was doing. He didn’t object to delay it. That meant, I could bring it up the next day. I got on the phone and first, I got the state representative from Chickasha. The college there used to be a college for women. OCW, Oklahoma College for Women and actually, their course was all girls.
I said, “Can they sing Oklahoma?” He said, “ Yeah, we just did that production not too long. I said, “I want your girls choir up here tomorrow. They’re going to perform music from Oklahoma!, on the floor of the legislature.” He said, “I’ll get them here.” Then I got on the phone and called Ridge Bond, who then lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Who’s Ridge Bond? Ridge Bond is the only Oklahoman ever to star as Curly on Broadway in Oklahoma!, but more important than that, he graduated from McAlester High School. Ridge Bond was in high school with my brothers and I was just a little bit behind, so I knew Ridge Bond from McAlester.
I called Ridge in Tulsa and I said, “Ridge, you still got any of those Oklahoma! costumes?” He said, “Oh yeah.” I said, “I want you down here tomorrow. You’re going to sing Oklahoma for the legislature.” He said, “When are we going to rehearse?” I said, “There ain’t no rehearsal.”
I got to tell you something else, there was a music company called Jenkins Music Company in Oklahoma City, so I called them and I said, “This is State Representative George Nigh. You got any legislation you’re really interested in?” They said, “Yes, we do.” I said, “I need a piano.” They said, “Okay Representative Nigh.” They sent out a piano the next day.
The next day, I get up on the floor of the legislature and I said, “Mr. Speaker, I ask unanimous consent, the privileges of the floor will be given to the girls’ course from Oklahoma College for Women and to our friend, Mr. Ridge Bond of Tulsa, Oklahoma.” No one objected.
The girls’ chorus came in and they sang Oh What A Beautiful Morning, and they sang People Will Say We’re In Love. They did sing all those things. Then suddenly, the piano player started that, “Boom-boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom-boom,” coming up from the bottom of the piano’s ... The lower keys coming up. Ridge Bond in his Curly outfit, kicked open the doors into the legislature with his cowboy boots and his thumbs in his belt and his hat on his head, and he came in and he started singing, “Oklahoma where the wind comes-” and the legislators stood and cheered and applauded as they sang Oklahoma.
The entire crowd in the gallery, all 200 of them, stood. Of course, I had put them up there. I had gotten all the secretaries to come in and sit up there and they stood and cheered. The whole crowd sang Oklahoma. When he ended Oklahoma, “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma. O-K, yeow!” Then I said, “Mr. Speaker, I move approval of House Bill 1042, to make Oklahoma the state song.” And it passed.
It’s a long story, but it’s a true story. To me, it summarizes my excitement for Oklahoma and I think that what is helping Oklahoma today, is that, we’ve always been proud to be from Oklahoma, but when we left the state, we never really did brag about it.
To me, I think you can look around. There’s so much about Oklahoma for which to brag and you can tell the stories and the images of this state, and that helps us in economic development. People don’t want to put a business, they don’t want to put a plant, they don’t want to have a vacation at a place that has a bad image. To me, image just like for a politician, is critical for a state. A hotel that has a bad image ain’t going to be full often.
Image is critical. Once you get people interested in you because of image, then repeat business comes from services and enjoyment and liking it. You got to live up to your image.