Image credit: Kinney Tobacco Company/Wikimedia Commons.
May 7, 2022, is the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby, nicknamed “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” Before these three-year-old thoroughbreds burst out of the starting gate, thousands of people will don elaborate hats, drink mint juleps, and—right before the race, accompanied by the University of Louisville marching band—sing Steven Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” You can read today’s lyrics here, but as historian Emily Bingham writes in her new book, My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song (Knopf, 2022), this Stephen Foster classic has an uglier past as a romantic reflection on Southern slavery.
Claire Potter: How did you decide to tell a story about race in the United States through a song?
Emily Bingham: I grew up in a public-facing family in Louisville, Kentucky, a few miles from Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is run every year. The whole city just comes alive with “Derby fever,” as we call it. People go around saying “Happy Derby,” to each other. So even as a young child in the ’70s, when things weren’t as over the top as they are now, there was energy around it. My family were journalists, media people, and so we would have guests every year for Derby.
I never got to go to the race: that was for grownups. What I knew is that “My Old Kentucky Home,” a song I already knew from school was sung at the peak moment of emotion before the race. Everyone was dressed up, and it was sort of tribal, I think. Phrases about our home and people weeping were broadcast on television: you heard the roar of people singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”
That was an iconic part of my childhood. I knew, in the back of my mind, that there was something racial about this song, but no one ever talked about it. And then I came to be a grown-up, almost finished with a Ph.D. I moved back to Louisville, not expecting to live here again, and I did these same things. One year, I thought: “I better tell my guests, who are smart, interesting people from out of town, what is going on with some of these traditions.”
That’s when I looked the song up on the web, and I saw that it was violent, tragic, and at the heart of our nation’s greatest sin. It stopped me in my tracks. That cognitive dissonance–between something that is so embraced but so painful at its core–percolated for years until it bothered me so much that I decided to write a book about it.
CP: But your book shows how this song originated in the North, then went South, and then became a national symbol. How did this song become one of Stephen Foster’s greatest legacies?
EB: Foster was born in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1826. He had a short life but left a remarkable body of work because he was the first person in this country to dedicate himself to songwriting as a profession, and he wrote memorable melodies. Readers will be familiar with, “Oh! Susanna,” perhaps, or “Camptown Races,” or “Swanee River,” which is officially named “Old Folks at Home.” Over time, these songs became part of the Great American Songbook.
Foster was a regular middle-class guy with a family who had a lot of economic ups and downs. He had older brothers who were businessmen, embedded in the trade between the North and the South, particularly the cotton trade. They kind of carried him: as an artist, he wasn’t always able to pay his bills.
So, Foster knew what a big deal slavery was, although he was no expert in the South, and spent very little time there in his short life. And in the Pittsburgh of Foster’s youth, there were also Black people, formerly enslaved, who remained indentured. Sometimes it took decades in the North for bondspeople to experience full freedom.
Foster also struggled with alcohol. He moved to New York City, where I think he hoped he could find a community, but he was in pretty dire straits after he wrote “My Old Kentucky Home.” It was one of his great hits, but afterward, there weren’t many more.
The Foster songs that have stayed with us the longest and gone deepest into our cultural memory are songs performed by, and/or written expressly for, the blackface minstrel stage. That is a massive genre of mid-19th century Americana: Foster gentrified and made it safer for middle-class people.
CP: Blackface minstrels, of course, are white musicians who put shoe polish on their faces: part of the attraction is that the audience knows they’re white. But how did Foster profit from writing songs?
EB: The only way he could make money was from selling copies of sheet music. After a performance, someone would go to the music store and buy a copy so that they could play it on their piano and sing. This is how minstrel songs became gentrified.
“Oh! Susanna” was popular too, and extremely racially problematic. It is rollicking and playful. But “My Old Kentucky Home” is sentimental, nostalgic. And it has, in its chorus, two very powerful concepts: “home” and “the lady.” The chorus goes: “Weep no more, my lady. Weep no more today. We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home. The old Kentucky home far away.” It’s repeating these powerful 19th-century concepts: domesticity, home, and femininity.
Blackface minstrelsy, and this song, in particular, aroused sentimentality. It entertained with the story of a Black man being sold to the Deep South from a Kentucky plantation, where he would die without seeing his family again.
It was a time when many people were displaced. They were emigrating to this country from Europe and from other places. Within the United States, people migrated from rural areas to cities. Minstrel players toured smaller towns, but in places like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, they performed night after night. They visited the White House and played for royalty. It was not only an American cultural phenomenon, but it also took over the way the world saw America.
CP: Part of what Foster and the blackface minstrels produced was a very early form of disinformation about slavery. Did you think about this story as offering insight into our contemporary world?
EB: In 2015, when I finished my last book, Black Lives Matter was shaping people’s understanding of race in this country, and the way that people were rallying against Confederate monuments provoked a debate about what history they tell, and how broadly white people accept that history. A lot of people just didn’t know that those monuments had been put up long after the Civil War.
The piece about disinformation that really got to me is how Foster, the people who sang these songs, on stage at least, purported to be experts in black life, music, dance, and life on the plantation. These deeply inauthentic representations were a core element of every 19th-century blackface minstrel show. And in general, the depiction was of Black people enjoying themselves on the plantation.
“My Old Kentucky Home” is complicated in so many ways because it starts with the line, “The sun shines bright on the old Kentucky home. ‘Tis summer—” then imagine the D-word, a slur for Black people, “are gay.” In the song, the plantation setting is happy.
Then, the song tells us that people must leave: it’s sad. That’s what prompts the chorus: “Weep no more.” Only by reading the full song do you get to literally what has happened, which is that a Black person has been sold South. But even that is papered over because plantation life is “happy and gay.”
CP: In the aftermath of the Civil War, both blackface minstrels and white southern politicians claim expertise over race. How do you see these two things speaking to each other?
EB: During Reconstruction, some states made bold moves towards racial equality: access to the vote, owning property, and even education in some places. But this song was not popular in the post-war South until white people ended these citizenship rights: they called it Redemption. This is also when the Daughters of the Confederacy, formed in the 1890s, took back messaging about the war, portraying it as a terrible blow to a South full of heroes.
Then, there was a lot of motivation to get things rolling again economically; 600,000 people died, and many Black people were leaving the South for northern cities. A city like New York and a city like Louisville were all managing new populations, and the white people who had economic power in both places were looking for ways to work together.
So, “My Old Kentucky Home” became a symbol of that unification. Army veterans from North and South come together for reunions, and this is one of the songs they sing.
CP: So, this is how the song becomes part of a national past, and its nostalgia for slavery concealed. Part of that is when black musicians establish careers and perform, they must wear blackface too, sing songs that white people think are authentic and use demeaning accents and words. It’s painful to read: was it painful to write?
EB: The research was horrendous at times. Black performers trying to make their way in a show business that was only just admitting them to the stage were cajoled and forced to sing these songs, including “My Old Kentucky Home.” And, without blaming them, it further authenticated the song for white audiences. White patrons expected it. One wrote a letter to the newspaper saying he was mad at a band hired for an event because they didn’t know the words to “My Old Kentucky Home.” Well, maybe the performers just conveniently forgot them.
There were other attempts to resist that were not hard for me to find. The most inspiring example is a woman named Henrietta Vinton Davis, born free in Baltimore. She went South as a girl, becoming a teacher in the Reconstruction-era schools in Mississippi as a very young woman, and then worked under Frederick Douglass in the office of Recorder of Deeds in Washington, DC.
Then she decided to go on stage as an elocutionist. And after many years of being someone who spoke respectable speeches from history, literary passages, things like that, Shakespearean monologues, she found herself pushed farther and farther into all-black spaces.
In her anger and fury, she and a friend, a radical journalist, wrote a play called “Our Old Kentucky Home.” I mean, talk about making lemonade out of lemons. She turned a song that was racist and oppressive and depicted Black people as passive and made it into a story about a group of Black people who made a former plantation into their home.
CP: Around this same time, Kentucky, a slave state that stood with the Union during the Civil War, become a symbol of the Confederacy.
EB: Kentucky pioneered the idea of plantation tourism, which we all now associate with the lower South. In 1920, the state was struggling, and Kentucky very, very much wants to be a place where people come to visit and do business, right? So even though the only home mentioned in the song is a cabin, boosters create a “Kentucky home.”
A family in Bardstown, Kentucky had this big, dilapidated, brick mansion about 40 miles south of Louisville that becomes the “old Kentucky home.” Rumors went around for years that this was where Stephen Foster wrote the song. Anyone who tried to verify it came away beyond empty-handed, but even when there were enslaved people working in Kentucky, this wasn’t where they were. There wasn’t a slave cabin on the place. They eventually moved one there, but like minstrelsy, it’s just one more lie.
But it stuck. The family couldn’t afford to take care of it and wanted to sell it, so the state put out a call for funds, The governor said: “The song has pulled at your heartstrings, let it now pull at your purse strings.” They predicted hundreds of thousands of people would come, just like Mount Vernon. It opened two years later; tourists came from all over the country, and all over the world, and the house became a place where white visitors were asked to imagine the experience of being slave owners. They walk through the house; they get to feel its glamor.
CP: As you point out, after World War II, “My Old Kentucky Home” becomes part of a national Cold War cultural offensive. And then, during the Civil Rights Movement, Black Americans start saying no to “My Old Kentucky Home.”
EB: I think it’s important that Black Americans were struggling with so many major issues for most of the 20th century. “My Old Kentucky Home” makes its resurgence at the apex of American lynching, a reign of terror against millions of people. One song, understandably, did not get top billing on the list of wrongs to be righted.
But that changes, even before World War II. Black performers like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, a hero of the American left, sang “My Old Kentucky Home.” But they started to edit out the slurs. If there must be an old Kentucky home, the “D-words” are gay, the people or the old folks are gay.
These small adjustments set off protests, even among white liberals. For example, there wasn’t a better friend to the black community in power in the States in the 1940s and 1950s, really, than Eleanor Roosevelt. Not to throw her under the bus, but when there was a school board member in Washington, D.C. raised teachers’ concerns that this song was hurting Black children and sending messages to all children that weren’t appropriate, even Eleanor said, “Poppycock. That’s just a lovely song. We can’t change that.”
She eventually came around, and this is something I think we all need to be reminded of: people change and grow. Later, Eleanor said to college students: “Learn and study your nation’s history realistically. You’ll love it just as much.”
CP: The act of writing a book where the evidence is full of racist slurs is complicated: to write about the song at all, you had to use them too. Can you talk to us about decisions you made to replicate slurs in the interest of helping your readers understand the significance of “My Old Kentucky Home”?
EB: There was a draft that had no slurs in it. The whole book was done and then reading it through with the keywords in a song about slavery and race erased left me concerned that I was going to be another chapter in the whitewashing and ghosting of the song’s meaning.
In fact, the state of Kentucky removed the “D-word” by the ’80s, which ghosted the whole topic and made the song safe for another generation. So, the decision to re-insert racial slurs in quotes was deliberate. I don’t use them in any of my writing.
And then something happened that I didn’t expect. I went into a studio to record the audiobook, and I came across the first quote with words I would never speak, words I would’ve been punished for speaking as a child. And yet, I found myself having to put my mouth around them. It was a very upsetting experience. I had to stop every time they came along.
“My Old Kentucky Home” ultimately feels to me like a white nation’s song to itself. These words were in the ears and mouths of our forebears constantly, and they haven’t totally disappeared from our landscape. We know that. We hear every week about somebody using the N-word, which was even harsher than the word at the center of this song. To just try to smooth it over was not possible.
Emily Bingham is a historian and author of My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and professor of history at the New School for Social Research.