Published in 1853 by Stephen Foster, the first verse and chorus of “My Old Kentucky Home” have been played during the Kentucky Derby’s post parade nearly every year since 1936, according to the Churchill Downs website. The crowd, which normally hovers around 160,000, sings the lyrics, which originally told the first-person tale of an enslaved person being sold down the river from Kentucky to toil in “the field where the sugar-canes grow” (modern versions change the point of view to third person).
The song was inspired by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel. However, critics of the song say it has been misappropriated by modern audiences.
“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,” Foster biographer and music critic Ken Emerson said of the song’s use during the Kentucky Derby 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.”
Kentucky adopted “My Old Kentucky Home” as its state song in 1928. In 1986, however, a Black member of the Kentucky House of Representatives named Carl Hines objected to the song’s repeated use of the word “darkies” when referring to people of color and got the state to change that word to “people” when employed as the state song. The version sung at the Kentucky Derby also was changed.
Questions about the song’s appropriateness have lingered for years and only have grown louder in the wake of this year’s protests that followed the police-related deaths of numerous Black Americans, including Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers while she slept in March.
In a statement released Thursday, before the decision to play the song was made, Churchill Downs said “we recognize that people in our community and across our nation are hurting right now. The atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby will be different this year as we respond to those calls for change. This will be a Derby unlike any other. As it should be.”
“Our goal has always been that the Kentucky Derby and the way it is observed throughout the city should be inclusive of the entire Louisville community,” the statement read. “However, we hear the calls to do more and we have challenged ourselves to do so. We hear the voices that tell us we have not successfully created an environment in which everyone feels welcome or included. That is not acceptable and we need to do more to ensure that our best intentions become a reality. We need to do more, now, to ensure that every member of our community is a part of our traditions. Churchill Downs is committed to engaging in the hard conversations in our city, our sport and within our own organization. We are committed to taking real, concrete action to address institutional roadblocks to progress and playing our part in advancing the changes America so desperately needs.”
This year’s Kentucky Derby was postponed from its usual date on the first Saturday in May until the first Saturday in September because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Fans will not be allowed to attend.