My Old Kentucky Home: A Song with a Checkered Past

Feature

Friday, May 02, 2014

My Old Kentucky Home, from Foster's Plantation Melodies (Courtesy of Indiana University)

On Kentucky Derby day — May 3 this year — more than one hundred thousand spectators will rise from their seats at Churchill Downs to sing "My Old Kentucky Home," the state song. "I find it very ironic that all these men and women in their lovely hats and fancy gowns are singing a song with adulterated lyrics,” says Ken Emerson, the biographer of songwriter Stephen Foster. “They think they are singing a song that is a celebration of the Antebellum South, with ladies in crinoline and dashing cavaliers, when really it is an anti-slavery song, inspired by an abolitionist novel.” 

Foster was the most successful and enduring songwriter of the mid-nineteenth century. His work was generally produced for minstrel shows, where racist parody was the stock in trade. Yet Foster was one of the first artists to understand and value the African-American musical culture that was being forged in the South, and he was sympathetic toward the plight of slaves. The original title of “My Old Kentucky Home,” Emerson says, was “Poor Uncle Tom,” and the narrator of the song is about to be sent away from his home, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom. He is looking back fondly on life in Kentucky before he is sent away:

'Tis summer, the darkies are gay
the corn top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom
where the birds make music all the day.

But that archaic language is deeply offensive to modern ears. In the 1980s, Carl Hines, the only African American in Kentucky’s General Assembly, introduced a law that substituted “people” for “darky” any time the song is sung at state functions. 

Because of that change, though, the song’s grounding in African-American experience has been lost. Foster wrote:

The head must bow and the back will have to bend
wherever the darky may go
A few more days and the trouble all will end
in the field where the sugar canes grow. 

“There was no sugar cane in Kentucky,” Ken Emerson notes; the narrator, like Uncle Tom, “has been sold down the river to Georgia or Mississippi, the Deep South, where he will die” at the hands of an overseer.    

A writer of minstrel tunes who was sympathetic to abolitionism, Foster’s life contained many ironies. After the tremendous successes of “Camptown Ladies” and “Oh! Susanna,” Foster was broke, a victim of unscrupulous practices in the music industry. He failed at the patriotic songs popular around the time of the Civil War. His wife and child had left him; he was living alone on New York’s Bowery and drinking rum. He had grown out of the rowdy minstrel style, composing more personal songs, like "Hard Times" and "Beautiful Dreamer." 

"He wrote his songs in a German saloon,” notes Larry Kirwan. The frontman of the Irish band Black 47, Kirwan has written a musical about Foster called Hard Times. “He didn't have money any more. So he wrote out the piano keys on top of a table and he would put his fingers on them and he could hear the music in his head and then write it from that.”

Kirwan recalls dock workers and farmers getting up to sing Foster songs in the pubs in Ireland where he cut his teeth as a musician. From specific historical experiences in America, Foster found and gave voice to universal feelings. “My Old Kentucky Home” expresses a particular kind of longing, Ken Emerson notes. "At that time, most people in America were immigrants. They were missing Ireland, they were missing England, they were missing their homes. And that powerful nostalgia that suffuses many of the great Stephen Foster songs — even if it was couched in a black language and in a kind of idiom that we find offensive, and it is naïve — nonetheless has a powerful tug, because it speaks to feelings universally of being far from home."

Stephen Foster was 37 when he died in 1864.  

    Music Playlist
  1. My Old Kentucky Home
    Artist: Paul Robeson
    Album: Paul Robeson. Ol' Man River - His 56 Finest 1925-1945
    Label: Retrospective Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Camptown Races
    Artist: Al Jolson
    Album: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
    Label: 2008 Classic Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Beautiful Dreamer
    Artist: Suzy Bogguss
    Album: American Folk Songbook
    Label: Loyal Dutchess Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  4. My Old Kentucky Home
    Artist: Bill Frisell
    Album: Kentucky Derby Is Decadent & Depraved
    Label: 429 Records
    Purchase: Amazon

Contributors:

Jim O'Grady

Comments [4]

Alana from Studio 360

H from Brooklyn,

That version of "My Old Kentucky Home" is by Bill Frisell. You can see a list of all of the music from the story above the comment section.

Thanks for listening!

May. 07 2014 11:50 AM
H from Brooklyn, NY

Who recorded the instrumental version of "My Old Kentucky Home" at the end of the show?

May. 05 2014 02:10 PM
Steve Friedman from NYC

This was movingly & beautifully done. Also perhaps shows the pitfalls of p.c. when it contrives beyond justifiable sensitivity and but stymies conversation and context and meaning. Perhaps.

May. 05 2014 01:52 AM
Ed Sullivan

When I taught English a a Second Language, forty years ago, William B. Yeats' poem"The Lake Isle of Innesfree" was one of the poems I taught. Students from Bangkok and Tokyo found the words about an isolated island in a lake in Ireland so moving that, once they understood the poem, they would weep at its reading. True art is the story of the human heart in conflict with itself, as William Faulkner once said. It is international and timeless, whether dreaming of My Old Kentucky Home or the Lake Isle of Innesfree or a pommegranate orchard in Japan, as I once saw in a movie. The words are merely the instruments. It is the longing that we share.
Ed

May. 04 2014 12:36 PM

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