The Complicated Legacy of ‘My Old Kentucky Home’

Sung each year at the Kentucky Derby, the tune’s original meaning has long been lost to history

Kentucky Derby
The finish of the 2019 Kentucky Derby. Jamie Squire via Getty Images

When the brightly decorated horses leave the stables at the re-scheduled Kentucky Derby this weekend, they’ll parade to the starting gates to the familiar tune “My Old Kentucky Home.” This year, in a tradition dating back to 1921, will mark the 100th time that the Stephen Foster song has been played before the race, the longest, continuously held sporting event in the United States.

Because of the pandemic, no fans will populate the stands of Churchill Downs to sing along this time, leaving just the millions of television viewers to share the seeming wistfulness for mythic “old” Kentucky:

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
Tis summer, the people are gay;
The corn-top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor
All merry, all happy and bright;
By'n by hard times comes a knocking at the door
Then my old Kentucky home, Good-night!

Weep no more my lady.
Oh! Weep no more today!
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home, far away.

Few of those singing along, however, may realize that the original lyrics were not a “Dixie”-esque paean but actually a condemnation of Kentucky’s enslavers who sold husbands away from their wives and mothers away from their children. As Foster wrote it, “My Old Kentucky Home” is actually the lament of an enslaved person who has been forcibly separated from his family and his painful longing to return to the cabin with his wife and children.

A Pennsylvanian by birth, Foster became America’s first professional songwriter by his own design. He attempted—and succeeded for a time—to earn his living by composing, rather than performing or publishing his songs. This became possible through copyright laws and the introduction of new printing technologies, coupled, of course, with his extraordinary talent for giving audiences what they wanted

The details of Foster’s biography are little-known and disputed, but it is clear that many of his northern relatives were strongly opposed to abolition. Though not an abolitionist himself, Foster might be looked upon as a “fellow traveler.” According to musicologist Susan Key, Foster “took a number of steps to mitigate the offensive caricatures of blacks, including depicting blacks as real, suffering human beings, dropping grotesque cartoons from the covers of his minstrel songs, and softening and then eliminating the use of plantation dialect.” To Key, songs such as “My Old Kentucky Home,” in their evocation of empathy for the enslaved worker as an individual, rather than an oppressed class, dodged the challenge of advocating for abolition.

Foster’s sheet music sold well during his lifetime, and many of his compositions, such as “Swanee River,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” as well as “My Old Kentucky Home,” are still played today. His music included elements of both rough-hewn minstrelsy and domesticized parlor songs, at times in combination. This blend of African American (however mishandled) and European American styles would become, in large part due to Foster, the defining character of American popular music. As an anti-slavery pastorale, “My Old Kentucky Home” foreshadows the blend of influences—and at times, cultural (mis)appropriations—of American music to this day.

“My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,” as it was originally titled, was written by Foster in the 1850s as an anti-slavery song, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and following the same story arc as Stowe’s title character. His initial working title was “Poor Uncle Tom, Goodnight.”

The song emphasizes the humanity and close family ties of the enslaved population at a time when African Americans were routinely dehumanized and caricatured. The opening scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin features a slave trader explaining that black people do not have the same tender emotions as white people, a rationalization for selling their children for profit. “My Old Kentucky Home” is a rebuke to that racist thinking.

In My Bondage and My Freedom, abolitionist luminary Frederick Douglass, himself formerly enslaved, wrote that the song "awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish."

The great Paul Robeson, the black singer, Shakespearean actor, and political activist of the mid-20th century, delivered a rendition with most of the original sorrowful lyrics—including a racial slur that no one would use today—that makes Foster’s meaning painfully clear.

Paul Robeson - My Old Kentucky Home

The verse sung at Churchill Downs, often by affluent, white crowds, looks different when taking into account that Foster’s singer was describing a slave trader coming to steal away a family member:

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy, and bright.
By and by hard times comes a-knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky home, good night.

The day goes by like a shadow o'er the heart,
With sorrow where all was delight.
The time has come when the darkies have to part,
Then my old Kentucky home, good night.

Later, the singer speaks of being sold down the river to the canebrakes of Texas or Louisiana:

The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darkies may go.
A few more days and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow.

The refrain, “weep no more my lady,” is a mournful reassurance that freedom will come to the enslaved, if only in death far from home:

A few more days for to tote the weary load,
No matter, ’twill never be light;
A few more days till we totter on the road,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

By the turn of the 20th century, with Foster having been dead for decades and legal slavery outlawed for just as long, “My Old Kentucky Home” had become popular among white audiences at minstrel shows, with the most mournful lyrics often omitted. As explained by historian Emily Bingham, “people focused on the song's first verse and chorus, and because of ongoing minstrel stereotyping and the racial tenor of Jim Crow America, most whites heard a lament for a happy home embedded in a glamorous portrait of life on the plantation.”

The song became an anthem for Kentucky tourism, with 10,000 copies of the sheet music distributed at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Popular recordings, including one by the classical soprano Alma Gluck, freely used the slur in Foster’s lyrics. Interestingly, Al Jolson, who often performed in blackface, substituted “children” and “friends” for the word.

As the song’s original anti-slavery meaning became less and less apparent, unsurprising considering the context of its popularity, objections grew to its performance. In 1916, the NAACP in Boston succeeded in having “plantation melodies,” including “My Old Kentucky Home,” banned from the public schools. In 1921, the black poet Joseph Cotter, a Kentucky native, proposed new lyrics that would emphasize the social progress of the “Negro,” which was, as Bingham put it, a “familiar theme[] for Booker T. Washington and other black leaders across the Jim Crow–era South:

The time has come when the head will never bow
Wherever the Negro may go.
A few more years and he'll show the nation how
He will thrive where the sugar canes grow.
A few more years and he'll shift the weary load.
So that it will ever be light
A few more years and he'll triumph on the road
And sing, My old Kentucky home's alright.

Cotter’s proposal did not impress the white power structure in Kentucky, despite his reassurance that the “old Kentucky home’s alright.”

In 1928, the Kentucky legislature adopted “My Old Kentucky Home”—and its original lyrics—as the official state song. In the middle of the Jim Crow era, the resolution passed by white legislators stated that the song had “immortalized Kentucky throughout the civilized world.”

The song remained popular in Kentucky and across the country. Recordings by Judy Garland (1939) and Bing Crosby (1940) both used the slur, while omitting the lines about death in the canebrakes.

It was not until 1986 that the only black member of the Kentucky House of Representatives sponsored a resolution removing the “connotations of racial discrimination that are not acceptable." With the anti-slavery meaning long obscured by overwhelming nostalgia for the plantation past, and with only the first verse typically performed, it had become impossible to hear the song’s slur in any context other than as a racial insult. The song was still deeply identified with Kentucky’s self-image, but it now had to be cleansed of objectionable language that had been severed from its original meaning.

A revised version, with “people” substituted as the plural noun, is now reverently performed at the Kentucky Derby, college basketball games, plantation reenactments, and other spirited celebrations, with no hint of its background.

Members of Louisville’s black community have called for the cancelation of this year’s Derby, in protest of the city’s police killing of Breonna Taylor. If the race goes forward without major disruption, along with a performance of Foster’s music, it will be without the slur, but also with no acknowledgement of his anti-slavery intent.

Alex Lubet is Morse Alumni/Graduate and Professional Distinguished Teaching Professor of Music and Head of the Division of Creative Studies & Media at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Music, Disability, and Society.

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and author of Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial.

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