The Hidden Racial History of 'My Old Kentucky Home'

Friday, May 02, 2014


May 3 is the date of the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. Since the 1930s, the occasion has been marked by a stirring ritual: before the horses break from their gates, more than 100,000 spectators rise from their seats at Churchill Downs for the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home" — a 19th century minstrel song by Stephen Foster.

What do those spectators, along with the race's millions of TV viewers, think they're singing?

Mostly likely, the song comes across as a nostalgic ode to a more genteel time in the life of the South. But that's not the song that Foster wrote in 1854. Inspired by the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, he instead penned a lament by a slave in Kentucky who's been sold down the river to the Deep South by his master. The slave is both saying goodbye to his old Kentucky home and preparing to meet his imminent death from overwork and brutal mistreatment in the "land where the sugar canes grow."

The problem is that Foster told the story by using words that are offensive to modern ears. In 1986, The Kentucky General Assembly passed a law that removed the words "darky" and "darkies" from the song and replaced them with "people." The same law requires that the new lyrics be sung at official state functions.

Ken Emerson, author of a biography on Foster, describes the effect on the scene 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 and they think they are singing a song that is a celebration of the Antebellum South, with ladies in crinoline and dashing cavaliers."

Foster began his career in the 1840s writing songs in the minstrel style. He had several big hits, including "Oh Susannah," "Camptown Races" and "The Old Folks at Home." It's a fact that, early in his career, he wrote a number of ugly songs. But his attitudes changed over time, and his musical portrayals of African Americans gained in dignity.

He was a songwriter of undisputed brilliance who is often called the father of American music. But he died he broke and alone in New York City.


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Comments [6]


What version of beautiful dreamer is used in this piece?

May. 06 2014 09:00 PM

He he did?


May. 03 2014 06:21 PM
Jason from Here and there

Well intentioned political correctness by the Kentucky General Assembly (removing offensive words - in this case "darkies") in an effort to not offend certain races, results arguably in revisionist history (i.e. buries the underlying historical reality of the times in which the song was written); and most certainly results in the opportunity for political opportunists to paint the perfect caricature of the current white majority: rich elitists in sun bonnets singing a song at a horse race who are oblivious to the song and Kentucky's (and by extension the Country's)racial past.

Perfect demonstration of damned if you do damned if you don't. What is more ironic is that most likely the same people who pressed for the removal of the offensive language (i.e. persons of the same political persuasion as in 1986) are now subtly using the removal of said language to create and author a story that subtly foments the same racial hatred and ignorance that existed when "My Old Kentucky Home" was written.

Quit the sensationalism NPR! Every song or symbol that hearkens to our past is not implicitly racist. And the celebration of these songs and symbols is not the celebration of nor nostalgia of racial bigotry.

NPR's goal is apparent - paint all of U.S. History as the irreparably tainted product of a tainted past (see NPR's "August Snow Storm Brought Devastation to D.C." piece which serves to taint the author of the "Star-Spangled Banner"). Once this has been accomplished you can then sell the newly educated populace a political world view that focuses upon remediating and repairing this tainted past. Furthermore, once this world view has taken hold, the elimination of and the means to eliminating all supposed vestiges of bigotry that still exist are warranted and justified. The means for this end include shredding-up or retooling the Constitution. Things like Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Equal Rights Under the Law can be eliminated (or more accurately retailored) because they were written by bigoted white men anyways.

And the result? NPR's Perfect Society.

May. 03 2014 12:37 PM
William McCart from Florida

Not surprising that this has taken place in a white dominated society.
Education is the key to change.
If we do not we repeat history.

May. 03 2014 12:32 AM
Julie from New Jersey

Fascinating story. I've watched the Derby for years, but never really caught all the words to the song. I will definitely be listening more closely tomorrow. The sad thing is 99% of the people singing do not know what it is about. Love WNYC, I have learned so much since I started listening 2 years ago.

May. 02 2014 07:40 PM
Pauline from Queens

This is a fascinating story about one of the most popular songs written by one of our greatest songwriters and everyone who has ever heard or sung it should listen to this report~!

May. 02 2014 06:05 PM

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