“My Old Kentucky Home”, the anthem of the Kentucky Derby, has a racist past

Placeholder while loading article actions

Emily Bingham grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, a few miles from Churchill Downs, where the annual Kentucky Derby horse race is held on the first Saturday in May each year. She patriotically sang “My Old Kentucky Home” at her family’s Derby parties. Her father regaled her with the story of her time as a young Marine, stationed in Japan, when he came across a group of Japanese children singing the melody.

So when Bingham declares that “My Old Kentucky Home” – sung before the Derby every year by 150,000 spectators, juleps in hand and tears in their eyes – is racist and bogus, she doesn’t say it like a critical outsider or an unbiased scholar. . She has more Kentucky bona fides than the guy who wrote the song 169 years ago.

In an unforgiving new book, “My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song,” Bingham, a historian at Bellarmine University, details the song’s long and bizarre history and how it was twisted. and twisted by American Memory.

Here are the lyrics as they are currently sung at the Derby:

The sun shines on my old house in Kentucky,

It’s summer, people are gay,

The corn is ripe and the meadow is in bloom

While the birds make music all day.

The young people are rolling on the floor of the little cabin,

All joyful, all joyful and bright:

By’n in hard times comes knocking at the door,

Then my old house in Kentucky, good night.

Cry no more, my lady, oh! don’t cry anymore today!

We will sing a song

For the old house in Kentucky,

For the old Kentucky Home, very far.

Sounds pretty innocuous, but it’s only the latest iteration. Instead of “people,” there was a racial slur for black people, evoking old stereotypes of happy slaves in the fields. Fans didn’t stop singing the insult at the Derby until 1967, and Kentucky didn’t officially change it to the state song until 1986.

There were also two other verses in the original that paint a picture that is more than just a universal yearning for home. The original song was really about Uncle Tom, an enslaved character in Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852 book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, who is sold by his longtime slaveholder to pay off his debts, separated from his family and boarded on a riverboat heading south, where he knows he will be labored until death. Bingham’s search of the songwriter’s records reveals that he originally titled it “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night” and wrote it in “slave dialect”.

This songwriter was Stephen Foster, often considered the “father of American music”, who also wrote “Oh! Susanna”, “Camptown Races” and “Hard Times Come Again No More”. Foster was no Southerner – he spent most of his life in Pittsburgh and died young in New York – but he was considered a master performer of “Ethiopian” music. He paid his bills by writing popular minstrel songs that were bawdy, crude, and sung by white men with black ash on their faces, but he yearned to be known for his more “proper” parlor songs, intended to be sung around the family piano in respectable conditions. White houses. Bingham theorizes that by removing the dialect and slowing down the cadence, Foster was attempting to combine the two genres with “My Old Kentucky Home”.

Foster may have borrowed the plot from an abolitionist, but “My Old Kentucky Home” was no anti-slavery anthem. It’s a song about an enslaved black man who doesn’t want freedom but the simplicity of life on a small plantation in Kentucky. The line ‘Weep no more, my lady’ – when many Derby spectators ironically begin to cry – is not directed at Uncle Tom’s black wife, who would not have been considered a woman in the culture dominant at the time, but to the white wife of the slaver who sold him, as if you were saying: “It’s normal that you miss slavery; I miss it too.

“White tears, not slavery, took center stage,” Bingham writes.

Despite Foster’s moderate success, he struggled with alcohol and died almost penniless in 1864. Even as the man was forgotten, his songs, especially “My Old Kentucky Home”, spread across America , where it was the centerpiece of blackface performances, and the world; Japanese children like the ones Bingham’s father met in the 1950s had learned it from textbooks for decades.

Black performers also started singing it, but not necessarily by choice. Emma Louise and Anna Madah Hyers – twin sisters from California who had never been enslaved – traveled the world performing classic repertoire in perfect Italian and French, but they had yet to fit “My Old Kentucky Home” into the set list. White audiences simply wouldn’t accept the sisters skipping what they mistakenly considered an “authentic nigger song”. Even the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who performed African-American spirituals to raise money for one of the first historically black colleges, Fisk University, performed “My Old Kentucky Home,” racial slurs and all.

In the early decades of the 1900s, white Americans North and South were united by a nostalgic obsession with an idealized past that never existed, when black Americans were happy and submissive. It was the height of the “lost cause” mythology that still plagues our history books, and the invention of cars led to a boom in restored plantations and Confederate statues as tourist destinations.

Kentucky in the early 1900s turned into something more Confederate than it had ever been during the Civil War, Bingham writes. It was a slave state, sure, but it never seceded from the Union and called on the federal government to help defend against Confederate invasion. Six times as many Kentuckians fought for the Union as for the Confederacy, and Louisville was a Union stronghold.

The horrific reason ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ didn’t become our national anthem for a century

None of that mattered. At Churchill Downs, where the Derby had run for decades but struggled to turn a profit, developers demolished the original colonial-style gate and replaced it with a more southern gate.

At Bardstown, about 30 miles from Louisville, a An old woman living in her family’s crumbling plantation home has told an ever-growing story of Foster writing “My Old Kentucky Home” while visiting her ancestors and spying on her family’s “happy slaves” from the porch. In 1922, she sold the plantation for far more than it was worth to the state, which restored it and renamed it My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

To this day, the state park repeats the story of the song’s birth, while claiming it is “unverified.” In truth, there is not a shred of evidence that Foster ever spent much time in Kentucky — at best, he may have spent a few hours in Louisville on a riverboat cruise in 1852, Bingham writes. .

There were no slave huts on the site either – slaves had slept on dirt floors in the cellar, according to records found by Bingham – but this did not fit the pastoral image of the town. “little shack” in the song, so one of the “restored slave quarters” was built and doubled as a gift shop. A local African-American man named Bemis Allen made his living sitting outside the house telling tourists stories “authentic” stories about planting days and playing “My Old Kentucky Home” on harmonica.

Around the same time, the song began to ring out from the stands of Churchill Downs as white tourists flocked to the revitalized Derby. It replaced the national anthem as the song sung before the race in 1930, two years after Kentucky made it the official state song.

He made appearances in classic films of the era, such as “Gone with the Wind” and Shirley Temple’s “The Little Colonel.” In Indiana, the scion of Eli Lilly’s pharmaceutical fortune collected Foster’s papers, commissioned a sympathetic biography of the man and donated millions of copies of Foster’s songbooks to schools and country libraries. “My Old Kentucky Home” was the first song in the book.

Concerns about racial slurs were rare until the civil rights movement, when White Kentuckians have fought against lyrical change as hard as they have fought against desegregation—sometimes even harder. Bingham quotes a white Kentuckian complaining to the Courier Journal about pressure from the black community to remove the racial slur. “I’m all for racial justice,” he said, “but this is getting ridiculous!”

Now, in the era of Black Lives Matter, there is renewed pressure for the song to be removed from the Derby altogether, sanitized lyrics or not. Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville police in her own Kentucky home just weeks before the 2020 derby, and protesters have urged Churchill Downs not to play it. Closed to spectators due to the pandemic, a virtual ceremony took place, during which a single bugler played the melody like tap dancing, without any words.

Ultimately, Bingham concludes, the fate of “My Old Kentucky Home” should rest with African Americans. But after researching its history, Bingham writes, “to me, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ is irretrievable.”

Comments are closed.