Will ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ be played at the Derby?

For many, the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" is the most emotional and meaningful part of the Kentucky Derby experience.
Updated: Sep. 3, 2020 at 11:23 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - For many people, it’s the most emotional and meaningful part of the Kentucky Derby experience: “My Old Kentucky Home” playing while the horses enter the track. But a report on created a stir Thursday when it was reported the future of the song at the Derby “remains under discussion.”

Local historian Emily Bingham has been researching the song’s controversial history and was writing a book about it since 2016 when she realized she didn’t know what it was actually about.

Here’s a hint: The song is not about the famous brick house in Bardstown.

”It’s a song about slavery,” Bingham told WAVE 3 News.

Though lauded as an anti-slavery ballad by historians, BloodHorse Magazine reports that Churchill Downs is weighing whether the song will play at the 146th Derby and moving forward.

“My Old Kentucky Home” is the official state song and has played at the opening of every Derby since around 1930. It was written by Stephen Foster in the 1850s about a Kentucky slave being shipped off to the deep South, yearning to be back with his family, echoing the story arc of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

”It presents a picture of slavery in Kentucky that is a beautiful, peaceful, positive,” Bingham said, “but then it transports this person, who’s kind of singing all the way about Kentucky, into an environment where they are going to meet death without ever being reunited.”

Later generations, Bingham said, attached the song to segregated plantation culture and blackface minstrel shows.

Throughout its history, people have protested the song. Bingham explained that it was only after Civil Rights protests focused on the 1967 Derby did crowds no longer sing the first verse in its entirety. Two decades later, the second line of the song, which contained a racial slur, was changed thanks to the work of State Representative Carl Hines, the House’s only black member at the time.

”The hangover, the ghost, or the haunting-ness of the song has never been resolved,” Bingham said.

Bingham suggested that instead, the song has been whitewashed, erasing the black anguish from its symbolism from classrooms, to the capitol, to sporting events.

”Like so many monuments and traditions and embedded things that we’ve held close, they’re almost so close, they’re so far within us, that we can’t see or hear them,” Bingham said. “We just don’t notice we don’t think, and we unconsciously reproduce what is actually a painful and traumatizing, triggering experience.”

WAVE 3 reached out to Churchill Downs in regard to the song, but have not heard back. Churchill did, however, issue a statement about race and its history in horse racing, saying in part, “The atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby will be different this year as we respond to calls for change. This will be a Derby unlike any other. As it should be.”

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