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‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ Kentucky Derby anthem, has racist past

In this May 4, 2019, photo, Flavien Prat on Country House, third from right, races against Luis Saez on Maximum Security, right, during the Kentucky Derby in Louisville (Darron Cummings/AP)

Emily Bingham grew up in Louisville, a few miles from Churchill Downs, where the annual Kentucky Derby horserace is held each year on the first Saturday in May. She patriotically sang “My Old Kentucky Home” at her family’s Derby parties. Her dad regaled her with the story of his time as a young Marine, stationed in Japan, when he came upon 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, mint juleps in hand and tears in their eyes — is racist and phony, she isn’t saying this as some judgmental outsider or dispassionate academic. She has more Kentucky bona fides than the guy who wrote the song 169 years ago.

In an unsparing 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, strange history and the way it has both twisted and been twisted by American memory.

Here are the lyrics as currently sung at the Derby:

The sun shines bright on my 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.

It sounds innocuous enough, but that’s just the latest iteration. In place of “people,” there used to be a racist slur for Black people, evoking old stereotypes of happy slaves in the fields. Fans stopped singing the slur at the Derby in 1967, and Kentucky didn’t officially change it in the state song until 1986.

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

That songwriter was Stephen Foster, often regarded as the “father of American music,” who also wrote “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races” and “Hard Times Come Again No More.” Foster wasn’t a Southerner — he spent most of his life in Pittsburgh and died young in New York City — but he was considered a master interpreter of “Ethiopian” music. He paid his bills writing popular minstrel songs that were bawdy, crass and sung by White men with black ash on their faces, but he yearned to be known for his more “proper” parlor songs, meant to be sung around the family piano in respectable White homes. Bingham theorizes that by removing the dialect and slowing 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. This is a song about an enslaved Black man wishing not for freedom but for the simplicity of life on a small Kentucky plantation. The line “Weep no more, my lady” — when many Derby spectators ironically start weeping — is directed not to Uncle Tom’s Black wife, who would not have been considered a lady in the dominant culture of the time, but to the White wife of the enslaver who sold him, as if you say, “It’s okay that you miss slavery; I miss it, too.”

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

Despite Foster’s moderate success, he struggled with alcohol and died nearly 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 encountered in the 1950s had been learning it in school songbooks for decades.

Black performers started singing it, too, though not necessarily by choice. Emma Louise and Anna Madah Hyers — twin sisters from California who had never been enslaved — traveled the world performing a classical repertoire in perfect Italian and French, but they still had to shoehorn “My Old Kentucky Home” into the set list. White audiences simply wouldn’t accept the sisters skipping over what they incorrectly thought of as an “authentic Negro song.” Even the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who performed African American spirituals to raise funds for one of the first historically Black colleges, Fisk University, performed “My Old Kentucky Home,” racist slurs and all.

In the first decades of the 1900s, White Americans from the North and South were united by a nostalgic obsession with an idealized past that never existed, when Black Americans were happy and submissive. This 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 contorted itself into something more Confederate than it had ever been during the Civil War, Bingham writes. It had been a slaveholding state, sure, but it never seceded from the Union and appealed to the federal government for help defending against Confederate invasion. Six times more Kentuckians fought for the Union than for the Confederacy, and Louisville was a Union stronghold.

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None of that mattered. At Churchill Downs, where the Derby had been taking place for decades but was struggling to turn a profit, promoters tore down the original colonial-style gate and replaced it with a more Southern-plantation-looking one.

In Bardstown, about 30 miles from Louisville, an old woman living in her family’s crumbling plantation house spun an ever-expanding tale of Foster writing “My Old Kentucky Home” while visiting her ancestors and spying her family’s “happy slaves” from the porch. In 1922, she sold the plantation for much 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 tale of the song’s birth, though hedging that it’s “unverified.” In truth, there isn’t a scintilla of evidence Foster ever spent significant time in Kentucky — at best, he may have passed a few hours in Louisville while on a riverboat cruise in 1852, Bingham writes.

There were also no slave cabins on the site — enslaved people had slept on a dirt floor in the cellar, according to records Bingham found — but that didn’t fit the pastoral image of the “little cabin” in the song, so a “restored slave quarters” was built and doubled as a gift shop. A local African American man named Bemis Allen made a living sitting in front of the house telling tourists “authentic” tales about plantation days and playing “My Old Kentucky Home” on the harmonica.

Around this same time, the song began wafting through the stands at Churchill Downs as White tourists flooded 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.

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

Concerns about the racist slurs were few and far between until the civil rights movement, when White Kentuckians fought against changing the lyrics as hard as they fought against desegregation — sometimes even harder. Bingham quotes one White Kentuckian complaining to the Courier-Journal about pressure from the Black community to remove the racist slur. “I’m all for racial justice,” he said, “but this is getting ridiculous!”

Now, in the age of Black Lives Matter, there’s a new push to get the song removed from the Derby altogether, sanitized lyrics or not. Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville police in her own Kentucky home only weeks before the 2020 derby, and protesters urged Churchill Downs not to play it. Closed to spectators because of the pandemic, a virtual ceremony was held, during which a single bugler played the melody like taps, with no words at all.

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