At the Kentucky Derby this Saturday, as the band starts to play “My Old Kentucky Home,” the camera will pan over the grandstand, where the rosy, well-fed gentlemen in their summer suits and the ladies in their elaborate millinery will be smiling and singing the first verse of the state song.
Stephen Foster’s text has required a little adjustment over the years. We now sing “ ’Tis summer, the people are gay,” not “the darkies are gay.” (The Commonwealth has not addressed the gay issue, which would be troublesome, because it’s a rhyme word.)
The change obscures what we now call cultural appropriation.* Stephen Foster wrote for minstrel shows, an extremely popular nineteenth-century genre in which white singers and dancers in blackface imitated the music and language of African-Americans. And “My Old Kentucky Home” is a song about black people.
This becomes quite clear in the subsequent verses, which we do not sing on Derby Day. The song is about a family of slaves who have been sold down the river, to “the field where the sugar-canes grow,” when their master in Kentucky gets into financial difficulties: “The day goes by like a shadow o'er the heart, / With sorrow where all was delight. / The time has come when the darkies have to part, / Then my old Kentucky home, good night!” The “weep no more today” refrain is a call to remember the lost past as a comfort in the brutal present.
“My Old Kentucky Home” is an anti-slavery song, a reminder of our history, and we in the United States have an easy relationship with much of our history. You need only look at the people who make the ludicrous assertion that the Civil War was not about slavery.** But it is good to know who we are, where we came from, and how we got here.
More broadly, of course, Stephen Foster’s song is about loss, and nostalgia, and thus universal. So this Saturday, if I am within earshot of the broadcast when the band strikes up “My Old Kentucky Home,” I will stand in respect, and in memory of my old Kentucky home, the home of my grandparents and my parents, which is far away and to which I will not be returning.
*Cultural appropriation is by no means a recent phenomenon. Think how Christianity appropriated Judaism, then elements of pagan culture, then anything that suited it that wasn’t actually nailed down.
**I am long resident in Maryland, whose state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” is a blatant piece of pro-Confederate propaganda.