Songwriter Stephen Foster's antebellum ballad "My Old Kentucky Home," the state song of Kentucky, has been sung by crowds at the Kentucky Derby almost every year since 1936. Last year, because of pandemic crowd restrictions and protests of the song's racism, track bugler Steve Buttleman intoned the melody in a somber performance shorn of the controversial words. According to Churchill Downs' Darren Rogers, a moment of silence preceded the performance to "recognize the inequities that many in our nation still face," and encourage "renewed hope." In an effort to align the song with these sentiments, the television broadcast displayed abolitionist Frederick Douglass's assertion that Foster's songs "awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow and flourish."
Although Churchill Downs has yet to release specifics, this Saturday, May 1, the song will once again be performed at the Derby. But when asked about the ballad earlier this week, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear opened the door to reviewing its status as state song. As reflection goes forward, it will be important to recognize that the song's history is not as simple as having built sympathy for the anti-slavery movement.
Written less than a decade before the Civil War, the lyrics avoided taking a concrete stance on slavery amid the violent partisanship of the day. The song imagines an enslaved man, nearing the end of his life, who has been sold away from his "old Kentucky home" to the Deep South and permanently separated from his loved ones. It depicts the horrors of slavery in its account of family separation and backbreaking labor in the Deep South, but the character also sings fondly of his earlier, idyllic life as an enslaved individual in Kentucky.
Is the song anti-slavery? Or pro-slavery? Does it condemn Kentucky slavery as inhumane? Or celebrate it as benevolent?
Historians who contend Foster was on the right side of history often point out that his early drafts of "My Old Kentucky Home" refer to the main character as "Old Uncle Tom," revealing that Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" inspired him. In the days leading up to the Derby last year, Alex and Steven Lubet used this to defend the song, concluding that Foster was a "fellow traveler" with abolitionists and the song was originally an "anti-slavery pastorale." Other Foster defenders, such as Joanne O'Connell, point out he was close friends with Charles Shiras, who edited an abolitionist newspaper in Pittsburgh.
But Foster ultimately cut explicit references to Uncle Tom, preferring ambiguity about slavery. And although he was friends with Shiras, he was also surrounded by pro-slavery northerners. Every member of his family was in the slavery-aligned Democratic Party, not the Party of Lincoln. His vocally pro-slavery family members were fond of his music and celebrated it, but not for the same reasons Shiras did. That the songs resonated differently with different people in Foster's social orbit indicates that the composer was aware of the songs' political ambiguity, suggesting he consciously wrote them in ways that encouraged pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions to hear whatever messages they wanted.
From the beginning, listeners heard vastly different messages in the song. Published at a time when the humanity of African Americans was contested, it portrays its enslaved character with a range of emotions, from joyous memories of family to intense sorrow at the thought of never seeing them again. Some of the first listeners and performers heard these songs as sympathetic, humanizing portrayals. Anti-slavery activists sang Foster's music, and theater troupes inserted "My Old Kentucky Home" into theatrical productions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The leveraging of the songs by abolitionists inspired Douglass to think of them as "allies."
After the Civil War, many people regarded the songs as intertwined with African Americans' contributions to American culture. Black ensembles such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed them alongside spirituals, and many listeners took pride in Foster, whom they viewed as having built his fame by compassionately integrating Black music into his popular songs. W. E. B. DuBois claimed that Foster's songs – in contrast to other minstrel songs – represented a bridge between the music of enslaved people and 20th century Black songwriters.
But there was always a different view. Foster wrote "My Old Kentucky Home" for overtly racist blackface minstrel shows, where performers included it in demeaning enactments of racial difference from a white supremacist perspective. Immediately after Foster published the song, it was utilized by performers in stage adaptations of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" that contorted Stowe's text into alignment with slavery. In several of these pro-slavery "Uncle Toms," enslaved characters (performed by white actors in blackface) return to the plantation having witnessed deplorable conditions in the North and state their preferences for remaining in bondage in the South, where they claim they are well treated by their enslavers. In this context, the performance of nostalgia in "My Old Kentucky Home" reinforced the "happy slave" stereotype that pro-slavery activists deployed to defend slavery as a benevolent institution.
The perception of the song as expressing nostalgia for the Old South helped it remain a staple of minstrelsy long after the Civil War. As a symbol of white supremacy, it was sung by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Ku Klux Klan. White students in Boston used it as a racist taunt toward their Black peers, eliciting a response from the NAACP that persuaded the Boston Public Schools to ban a book containing Foster's music.
In the 1950s, conservatives began to co-opt the view of Foster's songs as progressive in order to protect their place in cultural life. In 1957, CBS and NBC jointly decided they would no longer broadcast words and phrases deemed offensive, including "darkey" in "My Old Kentucky Home." The backlash was swift. An editorial in the Lexington Herald-Leader argued that "few men have had greater love for the Negro race than Stephen Foster, who drew from their life and customs the spirit of his songs." Foster L. Barnes, superintendent of the Stephen Foster Memorial in White Springs, Florida, asserted, "None of Foster's compositions in any way says anything detrimental about any race." Kentucky state senator Frank Chelf introduced legislation to ban revised versions of songs, and NBC and CBS gave in, at least partially, agreeing to air only unaltered versions of official state anthems. The following year, Chelf admonished Dinah Shore when she sang a revised "My Old Kentucky Home" on NBC. The network apologized, claiming it was an "inadvertent oversight."
Today, many defenders of the song continue to assert that it is progressive, while opponents see it as an offensive, pro-slavery anthem. Who is right? There is no simple answer. Foster wrote his songs to be ambiguous about slavery. He navigated the politics of the 1850s – and maximized his sales – by encouraging people to hear different messages in his music. "My Old Kentucky Home" became one of the most published, arranged, performed and recorded songs in history, but it did this by appealing to people on different sides of violently contested issues.
Last year the Derby stated that their "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." But "My Old Kentucky Home" was not written to mend divisions. It was written to capitalize on them.