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The complicated story behind the Kentucky Derby’s opening song

Emily Bingham’s ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ is a sweeping chronicle of a history that includes Frederick Douglass, Shirley Temple, Colonel Sanders, ‘Mad Men’ — and of course, the Derby

Spectators pack Churchill Downs at a race on the eve of the Kentucky Derby in 2011. (Luke Sharrett/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

Emily Bingham’s new book offers a powerful story of how, exactly, we fool ourselves into thinking the past is past.

In “My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song,” Bingham — a historian and member of an influential Louisville newspaper family — takes readers through the song’s erased histories, as well as the Bingham family’s own. It is a chronicle of how generations — of not just Kentuckians but people across the country and in many parts of the globe — have sung out bucolic longing, not for a home but for an enslaver’s plantation: “We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home/For the old Kentucky home, far away.”

Bingham begins with Stephen Foster, who is unironically known as “the father of American music.” Foster, it turns out, came from a family of Pittsburgh Confederate defenders. They were a family who pretended to be of means when they weren’t. They needed Stephen to earn. He proved he could when he turned to writing minstrelsy, that racist and profit-generating variety show.

Today’s crowds who enjoy the song “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!” — the state song of Kentucky and the hallmark of the Kentucky Derby — often fail to realize that Foster first wrote it in buffooning dialect. Bingham argues that this early version, which was called “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night!,” adapted and bent the story by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In borrowing the novel’s celebrity while also changing the story’s terms, Foster would give his minstrel show’s viewers an unsavable Tom, who in the song dies wishing he could return to the plantation.

But Foster thought to make even better money, realizing that if he recast the lyrics without a named character, and in General American English dialect, he could also reach the parlor demographic, those middle-class piano-playing White women who were buying up all the sheet music. He could write a song that worked for different audiences, depending on who was singing. And why.

That’s just this book’s first chapter. Bingham has given us an account that is both riveting and thorough, taking us across a century of spinout marketing campaigns, protests and versions that emerged from Foster’s lyrics. Shirley Temple, Colonel Sanders, the country of Japan, Henrietta Vinton Davis, J.K. Lilly, Marian Anderson, Richard M. Nixon, the 31W Highway, “Mad Men” — and yes, the Kentucky Derby — are all summoned. Before Bingham’s done, she will argue with powerful momentum that the song “is a spy hole into one of America’s deftest and most destructive creations: the ‘singing enslaved person’ whose song assured hearers that the plantation was happy and a place where Black people belong.”

Not everyone agrees. A frequent position, and perhaps the most damaging, is that “My Old Kentucky Home” has somehow become harmless, as if it is made new by naivete. What many hear in the song is only the delicate ache of the music itself. That, and the word “home,” which when isolated from the rest of the lyrics might speak to those who simply miss a place.

A spokesperson for Churchill Downs, responding to a query about the organization’s plans for the song at this year’s race, turned, as many do, to a quote by Frederick Douglass in which he says that the song “awaken[s] the sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.”

What this quote does not disclose is that Douglass names Kentucky’s state song alongside other sad minstrel tunes, arguing for abolitionists to surprise themselves and enlist such songs for the cause. He acknowledges that “it would seem almost absurd to say it,” for them to consider allying themselves with such words. Bingham confirms that, indeed, “Nothing of the sort happened. Chattel slavery disturbed relatively few white minds, and white action was rarer still. ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ never became an abolitionist rallying cry.”

Minstrelsy weaponized laughter and music against this country’s own citizens. It was terror sold as entertainment, and it was massively popular. Or, as Bingham writes, it was “the most significant American cultural creation up to the advent of Hollywood.” Bingham is also clear that Douglass “despised blackface minstrels, calling them ‘the filthy scum of white society who’ denigrated his race for profit even as they stole ‘from us a complexion denied them by nature.’ ”

In 2020, Black Lives Matter activists called for Churchill Downs to not use the song on Derby Day, hoping for a reprieve in honor of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers earlier that year. The request was denied. Instead the stadium presented the song by bugle, with a moment of silence after. This year, the University of Louisville band and choir will be in full voice.

People who are devoted to provocative hot takes will probably accuse Bingham of canceling a standard perceived to be an anthem for the American Dream. But Bingham’s research is finely detailed, extensive, complex. Further, her identity — and its many complications — is vital to her authority as a needed writer of this book.

Bingham is a daughter of the formidable family who owned and published the Courier-Journal — Kentucky’s largest newspaper — for nearly 70 years. Inside the commonwealth, the Binghams are famously liberal. The writer braids her pursuit of the personal alongside the national, revealing an investment in accountability.

Emily’s great-grandfather, Robert Worth Bingham, bought the paper from Henry Watterson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor who was once a volunteer in the Confederate army. In some ways, Robert Worth, a self-professed progressive, transformed the paper. For example, he changed the Courier-Journal’s support of Confederate politics, including the paper’s perspective on lynchings. And, under his wing, the paper often sided with the Appalachian mining families against the coal companies. But that, of course, is not the whole picture.

Last summer, Emily Bingham, with her father’s sister Eleanor, published a statement that leans toward taking responsibility for the family’s need to do better, be better. In this book, she advances her effort significantly. Bingham shares the memory of her family’s “chilled” response to the rumor that Muhammad Ali was buying a house in their neighborhood. She tells of Robert Worth’s father: Robert Hall, a Klansman. And also of Robert Hall’s Confederate battle flag, which Robert Worth hung on his newspaper office wall. Bingham also questions her own actions, including remembering that her first fondness for “My Old Kentucky Home” formed when she read and loved Margaret Mitchell’s Lost Cause novel, “Gone With the Wind.” In these stories, she not only holds her own legacy to the light, she challenges her reader to see that liberalism is not equal to anti-racism.

What makes us so afraid to learn? What makes a person, a family, a country afraid of veracity? Emily Bingham’s new book is a work toward truth and reconciliation. Bingham writes, “I don’t believe it can be wrong to love a song, but I do believe we commit wrongs when we do not understand what we claim to love. Refusing to look closely at uncomfortable aspects of history has hurt this nation and may be its undoing.” Ignorance, she intimates, is not an option for the patriotic.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is the poetry editor for the Oxford American. She is a seventh-generation Kentuckian.

My Old Kentucky Home

The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song

By Emily Bingham

Knopf. 352 pp. $30

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