Churchill Downer: The Forgotten Racial History Of Kentucky's State Song | KUOW News and Information

Churchill Downer: The Forgotten Racial History Of Kentucky's State Song

May 6, 2016
Originally published on May 6, 2016 7:32 am

Every year at the Kentucky Derby, crazy hat-wearing, mint julep-guzzling horse-gazers break into a passionate rendition of Kentucky's state song, "My Old Kentucky Home." As tradition goes, the University of Louisville Cardinal Marching Band accompanies the crowd as they croon a ballad that seems to be about people who miss their happy home. "The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home/'Tis summer and the people are gay," begins one version.

But Frank X Walker, Kentucky's former poet laureate, suspects that most people are missing the point.

"I'm a Kentuckian, and I love my state," Walker says. "But at the same time, you know, the memories, the history this conjures up, I think people sing it and are totally disconnected from the history, from the truth."

He refers to these lyrics:

"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."

Walker says that though it may sound like "a happy family environment in a humble cabin experience," there's definitely something more going on. "My Old Kentucky Home" was written by Stephen Foster in 1852, years before the Civil War. Foster was an American composer, famous in part for his minstrel music. The characters he references — the ones who had to leave Kentucky — were slaves.

In fact, "My Old Kentucky Home" was originally sold as an anti-slavery song. The final verse shows slaves being "sold down the river," as it was called in those days — sent down the Ohio and Mississippi to serve on sugar cane plantations, where they might be worked to death in the sun.

It includes the lyrics, "A few more days and the trouble all will end, in the field where the sugar cane grows." Paul Robeson sang that verse generations ago; today, people rarely do.

Another part of the song has vanished today. Foster's lyrics called the enslaved people "darkies." These days, that word is no longer sung, which leaves no explicit reference to black people.

But Walker wants people to know the real story behind Kentucky's state song, even if they always thought they were hearing a simple, romantic song of home.

"[Foster] wasn't from Kentucky, so he imagined, or he witnessed something that suggested that is was a great place to be a slave," Walker says. "My issue is that there was no good place to be a slave."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

With a song people sing without quite knowing what it means, it is the Kentucky state song, which will be part of the annual ritual of tomorrow's Kentucky Derby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK JOHNSON: Please rise and sing along as the University of Louisville marching band plays "My Old Kentucky Home."

INSKEEP: People wearing crazy hats holding mint juleps sing the words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: (Singing) The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) It's summer, the people are gay.

INSKEEP: It seems to be about people who miss their happy home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME")

JOHN PRINE: (Singing) Weep no more, my lady. Oh, weep no more today.

INSKEEP: And that line about weeping, sung there by John Prine, makes people weep. Yet, a man who grew up in Kentucky suspects that most people miss the point.

FRANK X WALKER: I love my state, but at the same time, you know, the memories, the history this conjures up, I think people sing it and it's totally disconnected from the history, from the truth.

INSKEEP: Frank X Walker is a former poet laureate of Kentucky. He read through some of the lyrics with us.

WALKER: The young folks roll on the little cabin floor, all merry, all happy and bright. By and by hard times come knocking at the door, then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

INSKEEP: What's happening there?

WALKER: Well, it sounds like a happy family environment in a humble cabin experience.

INSKEEP: Sounds like but there's something more. The great composer Stephen Foster wrote this song in the 1850s before the Civil War. And the characters having to leave Kentucky, were slaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) By and by hard times come knocking at the door, then my old Kentucky home, good night.

INSKEEP: And what's happening, I guess, is the owner ran out of money and the people who were enslaved were being sold down river. Wasn't that the phrase? You'd be sold...

WALKER: For the South.

INSKEEP: Where life was considered even more brutal.

WALKER: And harder. And not just more brutal, but with a shorter life expectancy.

INSKEEP: People today rarely sing the song's final verse. That verse shows the slaves are going to sugarcane plantations where they might be worked to death in the sun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME")

PAUL ROBESON: (Singing) A few more days and the trouble all will end, in the field where the sugarcanes grow.

INSKEEP: That's the entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, who did sing the final verse generations ago. Another part of the song has vanished today. Stephen Foster's original lyric called the slaves darkies. Today, that offensive word is not sung, but that leaves no explicit reference to black people. The truth is "My Old Kentucky Home" was originally sold as an antislavery song. Not only that, poet Frank X Walker thinks Stephen Foster wrote a lousy antislavery song.

WALKER: You know, he wasn't from Kentucky, so he imagined or he witnessed something that suggested that it was a great place to be a slave. And my issue is that there were no good places to be enslaved.

INSKEEP: So when I go through this story, I feel a tragedy. It's not nostalgic, it actually hurts.

WALKER: Now you're in my territory. And for me, when I hear the song, if I would shed a tear, it would be for the pain of those who suffered in that way.

INSKEEP: Walker would like people to know that story, even if they always thought they were hearing a simple romantic song of home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Oh, the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Theme music written by BJ Leiderman, arranged by Jim Pew. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.