Future of ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ song in doubt

One has to wonder how much longer the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” will occur at sporting events in the Bluegrass. Anything associated with slavery is a candidate for extinction, based on the current atmosphere surrounding racial issues.

The University of Louisville band, which has performed at the Kentucky Derby for a couple of decades, was still playing the music before UofL football games last season. Probably not going to happen this year, no matter how all the drama with Covid-19 pandemic pans out. Not that that would bother this Ohio-born observer all that much but the kids and grandchildren raised in Kentucky will miss the song.

Original lyrics, all three verses of My Old Kentucky Home.

An 800-pound statue of Stephen Foster, who wrote the song, was removed from a prominent location in Pittsburgh a year ago today. The Pittsburgh Art Commission determined that the statue, which included a barefoot African-Amer­i­can banjo player seated at the famed com­poser’s feet, was considered “outright racist.”

The Kentucky State Legislature partially dealt with the song’s lyrics in 1986, passing a resolution to change a portion of the first verse from “darkies are gay” to “young folks are gay.”  They didn’t bother, however, to delete the references to darkies and slavery in the the second and third verses. An unfortunate mistake for the folks who get sentimental and tear up at the uplifting “Weep, no more my lady” portion. Whether that would have made a difference in today’s combustible atmosphere is questionable.

Emily Bingham, daughter of a former Courier Journal publisher, spent several years researching a book tentatively entitled, “Sing One Song,” about the state song. “You can look at the song as kind of a sonic monument; it still lingers in our ears,” Bingham said in 2018. “But it’s a very slippery subject because part of the story is about race. A big part.” No word on how that book is coming along, maybe she’s waiting for the final chapter to unfold with the current environment.

CJ columnist Joe Gerth last year called for the Kentucky General Assembly to pass legislation removing the designation of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the state song. Gerth, who writes as much on race as politics these days, pompously demanded:

“Churchill Downs needs to say it won’t allow the song to be played before the Derby. The University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville, and any school that plays the song at sporting events need to stop. Now. To celebrate slavery in Kentucky, as if the barbaric institution was better here than elsewhere, is just wrong.”

The current focus appears to be on police brutality and Confederate statues. The day is rapidly approaching, however, when singing the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home,” either the revised version or in the original form,  in public or private, will be considered racist. That’s if it isn’t already considered taboo by individuals leading the current debate on such issues.

Many wonderful memories associated with the song, historic events, big and small. One is reminded of a cold Derby Day a few years ago. A dark, miserable day, starting with snow in the morning and rain later in the day. Spectators freezing most of the day, their damp clothes clinging to their shivering bodies. But then just a few minutes before the Run for the Roses, the clouds clearing, the crowd breaking into a roar, the UofL band playing “the sun shines bright” as the horses enter the track.

Those days are gone, soon becoming a distant memory. Weep no more and say goodbye to “My Old Kentucky Home.”

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Charlie Springer

Charlie Springer is a former Louisville editor and sportswriter, a public affairs consultant, a UofL grad and longtime fan.

12 thoughts on “Future of ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ song in doubt

  • June 15, 2020 at 3:12 pm

    Meh. Can’t say that I’ll miss it. The blue folks get all teary eyes over it so screw it. I’m from Louisville, not Kentucky.

  • June 15, 2020 at 3:55 pm

    Now is the time for all to stand and sing along to Dan Fogelberg’s classic “Run For the Roses,” which is perfect for the Kentucky Derby:
    “And it’s run for the roses
    As fast as you can
    You fate is delivered
    Your moment’s at hand
    It’s the chance of a lifetime
    In a lifetime of chance
    And it’s high time you joined
    In the dance…”

  • June 15, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    This kid won’t miss it.

  • June 15, 2020 at 10:37 pm

    One good thing about being tone deaf?

  • June 16, 2020 at 12:53 pm

    I’m back after a long absence. I’ve always been kind of ambivalent about this song, because of the friction that has existed between Louisville and some portions of the state. Louisville does so much for this state and gets very little in return. I have never stood up for this song at UofL athletic events for that very reason.

  • June 16, 2020 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks for this, Charlie! The book is in revision and scheduled for publication–I wish it were out now! Small detail: I believe I was quoted in 2018, not 1918.

    • June 16, 2020 at 3:05 pm

      Great to hear from you, Emily. I have no doubt your book is going to be met with a great of interest across the state. Thanks, too, for helping me with the editing. The 1900’s were not that long ago.

  • June 21, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    I agree with Barbara–“Run For The Roses” is a natural for the Derby.
    The origins of the Old Home song are undeniably racist, so why not move on?
    America has changed over the years, is changing right now and will change more in the future–doesn’t take a wizard to realize that. The best we can and should do is to nudge this great country in the right direction as time passes. The right direction for everybody….
    In the meantime, can we please play football and basketball? My DVR is getting worn out…

  • July 6, 2020 at 1:44 pm

    I can’t believe I’m reading this.

    Anything KY without “My Old Kentucky Home”? Seriously?

    We need to grow up.

    FYI, this is coming from someone who is Ohio-born.

    • July 6, 2020 at 3:36 pm

      Sorry, John. Not advocating the elimination, just predicting that the overly sensitive segment of the populous will eventually demand it be replaced. It’s actually a beautiful song and I enjoy hearing it, especially by the UofL band at the Kentucky Derby.The individual in the Governor’s Office right now will fold pretty quickly on the issue. Oh, and nice to hear from another Ohioan.

  • July 10, 2020 at 7:58 pm

    Mr. Springer—sorry, I didn’t mean for it to come across as a personal attack, or an attack on your article.
    The more I read it, I do see what you’re saying. The song very well may be next on the list of things to go.
    Personally, I hope not. As much as I like Gov. Beshear, I can see him caving on this issue.

    In my opinion, however, the song evokes more American heritage than exclusively Kentucky heritage. This is why even as an Ohioan, I can’t picture Old KY Home gone! Yes, it originally had offensive lyrics. But they were changed—and rightfully so.

    For example, some people at one time used the Bible to justify slavery & white supremacy, but of course we know otherwise today. And no serious person would want to retire the Bible or any other sacred text, simply because some people misused it in the past.

    So long-story-short, I guess I’m a “slippery slope” guy. That is, where does the super-PCness end? (FYI, I’m politically Independent—NOT an ultra right-winger.)

    Just “food for thought.” 🙂
    Have a great weekend!

    • July 10, 2020 at 8:15 pm

      Actually intended to be an anti-slavery song, John, but unfortunately this fact goes right over the heads of many, especially those who want to erase history. We live in confusing times for some, regretably for all of us.

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