“Since 1936, with only a few exceptions, the song has been performed by the University of Louisville Marching Band as the horses make their way from the paddock to the starting gate,” the Derby’s official history explains.
On a rainy Saturday, as race winner Justify and the 19 other horses headed to the gates, it happened again at the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. The crowd sang along, a scene captured by NBC’s television cameras. Many people belting out the lyrics — or the millions who listened at home — had no idea that the history behind the song is so fraught.
“My Old Kentucky Home” is the state song of Kentucky. It was written before the Civil War by American songwriter Stephen Foster, who is considered the “father of American music.” The song has made appearances in “Gone With The Wind” and “The Simpsons” and been recorded by artists including Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Marian Anderson and Louis Armstrong.
But last month, the city of Pittsburgh, Foster’s home town, removed a statue of him with a black man sitting at his feet, singing and strumming the banjo.
The 800-pound statue, created in 1900 by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, had been a controversial monument at Schenley Plaza, with critics saying it “glorifies white appropriation of black culture, and depicts the vacantly smiling musician in a way that is at best condescending and at worst racist,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Defenders said that it simply showed Foster listening to a song by a black musician.
Foster, who wrote minstrel music now seen as racially offensive, is remembered for “Oh! Susanna,” “Hard Times Come Again No More” and “Old Folks at Home” (or “Swanee River”).
“My Old Kentucky Home” was different. It is a lament by a slave who has been sold by his master and, bound for the Deep South, must say goodbye to his beloved birthplace. It hints at the brutal mistreatment he faces: “The head must bow and the back will have to bend … In the field where the sugar-canes grow.”
“Ironically,” Emerson said, “here is a song that was inspired by a great abolitionist novel, and which no less a leader than Frederick Douglass himself singled out as a song that awakens the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish. So, like all of Foster’s music, it’s thick with contradictions that, to this day, I think, are part of the American experience.”
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
‘Tis summer, the darkies 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, goodnight.
They hunt no more for the possum and the coon,
On meadow, the hill and the shore,
They sing no more by the glimmer of the moon,
On the bench by the old cabin door.
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.
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;
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, good night.
In 1986, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law replacing the words “darky” and “darkies” with “people.” The altered lyrics are the ones now sung at Churchill Downs.
“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,” Emerson said in a 2014 interview with WNYC News, “and they think they are singing a song that is a celebration of the Antebellum South, with ladies in crinoline and dashing cavaliers.”
Former Kentucky poet laureate Frank X Walker told NPR in 2016 that the song is more than a state anthem.
Walker said that Foster was not a Kentucky native, “so he imagined, or he witnessed something that suggested that [it] was a great place to be a slave. My issue is that there was no good place to be a slave.”