On the first Saturday in May, as the Kentucky Derby is about to begin, 150,000 people at Churchill Downs and a worldwide TV audience pause to sing or at least mumble along as a band plays the sentimental strains of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
The words of the song’s first verse — the only one sung then — speak of the beauty of Kentucky, a longing for home and hard times “a knockin’ at the door.” But what is the song really about? Who is this lady, and why is she weeping?
Before anyone can think too deeply about it, the horses are at the starting gate, the two-minute race is over and it’s time for another mint julep.
Emily Bingham grew up in Louisville as the eldest daughter of The Courier-Journal’s publisher. But she never thought much about Kentucky’s state song until she moved back home after graduating from Harvard and earning a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina.
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Friends would visit for the Derby, and Bingham would field their questions about Kentucky history and tradition. She finally started researching “My Old Kentucky Home,” a song about place and race that for nearly 170 years has been loved, hated, rewritten and selectively used by both blacks and whites for very different reasons.
Bingham, the author of two acclaimed books, has spent several years researching a book tentatively titled “Sing One Song.” It will explore the complex feelings and endless controversies “My Old Kentucky Home” has evoked.
“You can look at the song as kind of a sonic monument; it still lingers in our ears,” Bingham said. “But it’s a very slippery subject, because part of the story is about race. A big part. I want to know who sang the song and what it meant to them.”
Stephen Collins Foster, an enigmatic songwriter from Pittsburgh, wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1853 for Christy’s Minstrels, one of the nation’s most popular traveling blackface music and comedy troupes.
"The song was a hit, but it might not have remained in the public ear so much if it hadn't been picked up as a chief part of the soundtrack of ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’,” Bingham said. "Everybody saw 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.'"
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery story was America’s best-selling novel of the 19th century and was widely adapted into plays. Both “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “My Old Kentucky Home” tell the story of a Kentucky slave sold “down the river” — a common occurrence in the 1840s and 1850s, when Lexington was a center of America’s slave trade.
Foster’s sketchbook, now at the University of Pittsburgh, shows he originally wrote the words “Poor Uncle Tom” instead of “Old Kentucky Home.” Bingham says nobody knows why Foster changed the lyrics before they were published, but she suspects it was to avoid offending pro-slavery whites who saw Christy’s Minstrels.
White Southerners hated “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” because of its cruelly accurate depiction of slavery. In 1906, the General Assembly even outlawed the performance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Kentucky.
The reaction to “My Old Kentucky Home” was much different, perhaps because it has such a lovely melody. Whites and blacks creatively reinterpreted its meaning to suit their own purposes.
By focusing on the first verse, which has some lyrics that strike modern ears as profoundly racist, white Kentuckians transformed the song into a paean to their mythical view of Antebellum society. Instead of a slave cabin, the “Old Kentucky Home” was re-imagined as an elegant mansion.
At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Kentucky built an elaborate state pavilion in the style of an Antebellum mansion, naming it the “New Kentucky Home.” Inside, a player piano endlessly churned out “My Old Kentucky Home,” Bingham said. Thousands of copies of the sheet music were given away to visitors.
“It was a fantastic way to market Kentucky, which at the time had this reputation of being violent and corrupt and poor and a mess,” Bingham said.
The transformation became complete in 1928, when “My Old Kentucky Home” became the official state song. Journalist Allison E. Young led a movement for the state to buy the Rowan family’s dilapidated Federal Hill mansion in Bardstown, now the centerpiece of My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
The Rowans were distant cousins of the Fosters. The songwriter’s sister, Charlotte, visited Federal Hill for several weeks when he was a child. She rejected a marriage proposal from one of the Rowans, then became ill and died in Louisville. Stephen Foster may or may not have ever visited Federal Hill and it may or may not have been the inspiration for his song. But it makes a good story.
Former Gov. Happy Chandler was fond of singing “My Old Kentucky Home” on the campaign trail and, later, at University of Kentucky basketball games. Even now, the song is treated almost like the National Anthem at Kentucky events. People stand and sing; some get teary-eyed.
Black people’s views of “My Old Kentucky Home” have been even more complicated. Bingham has found instances where black performers sang the song for black audiences, and even where it was used at all-black homecomings.
But Joseph Seamon Cotter, the son of a Federal Hill slave who became a prominent writer and educator, rewrote the lyrics as an anthem of black empowerment. And in the 1890s, black writers John Edward Bruce and Henrietta Vinton Davis wrote a play called “Our Old Kentucky Home” whose plot was almost a role reversal of the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” story.
By the 1920s, the NAACP was objecting to the song’s most controversial line: ‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay. (At the time, “gay” meant “happy.”)
That controversy came to a head in 1967, when civil rights protests in Louisville prompted cancellation of some Derby week events. Bingham says one protester’s sign read: “The darkies are no longer gay.”
Still, it would take another few years for Churchill Downs to change “darkies” to “people,” Bingham said.
The General Assembly wouldn’t officially change the lyrics until 1986, when a group of Japanese children visiting the House gallery spontaneously sang all three verses. That was too much for the House’s only black member, the late Rep. Carl Hines of Louisville. He introduced legislation to officially change the lyrics.
But why would Japanese children know “My Old Kentucky Home” by heart? Part of the answer, Bingham says, lies with Josiah Lilly, the son of drug maker Eli Lilly. He spent millions collecting Foster memorabilia and promoting the songwriter’s legacy by giving away hundreds of thousands of Stephen Foster songbooks to schools and the Armed Forces.
Bingham says her father, the late Barry Bingham Jr., told her of being shocked to hear Japanese children singing “My Old Kentucky Home” when he was serving with the Marines on Okinawa. They apparently learned it from American soldiers.
Stephen Foster died a penniless alcoholic in 1864, but his music and legacy are as popular and controversial as ever.
Last year, Linkin Bridge, a black acapella quartet from Louisville, became a YouTube sensation with a beautiful, hip arrangement of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Just this week, Pittsburgh city officials removed a 118-year-old statue of Foster from a prominent public park. The statue had long been controversial because it depicted the “Father of American Music” with a black man at his feet, singing and playing a banjo. Plans call for the statue to be relocated to a “properly contextualized” location and be replaced by one of an African-American woman to be determined.
With much of the historical research for her book complete, Bingham is now talking with Kentuckians of all kinds to see how they do or don’t relate to the song. (Write her at: Emily@Emilybingham.net).
“In a way, (the book) is a biography of a song’s journey through our folklore,” she said. “It fits with a lot of the questions we're asking ourselves now about where we are and what about our heritage we have and haven't been able to confront.”