LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The state song of Kentucky, Stephen Foster’s, "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night," nearly passed into that good night, at least as far as its performance before the Kentucky Derby was concerned, this past week.
“There were a lot of conversations,” Churchill Downs senior vice president for communications Darren Rogers said.
Track officials considered not playing the song. They considered other options. It already was going to be different in this COVID-altered reality. The University of Louisville Marching Band would not play the song. The U of L Choir would not sing it.
It the end, as the Kentucky Derby field of 15 colts made their way to the post, the silent background was cut by a lone bugle, played by Steve Buttelman. It followed a moment of silence, also added by track officials this year. If some were singing, it didn’t register. Which was appropriate in this troubled time.
[Video below shows the song being sung at the 2015 Kentucky Derby]
Outside the track, protesters raged against racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racism. They have argued this week that there is nothing to celebrate in Louisville, and they make a good point.
But inside, this race that has persevered through numerous wars, epidemics, scares and a Great Depression, now has persevered through this novel coronavirus.
The question here is whether one of its signature moments will survive along with it.
Every generation interprets music, literature, art and a great many other things for itself. Every generation determines its own meaning.
Let me tell you a story. When I was in high school, activists decided that children in public school no longer should be taught the novels "Huckleberry Finn" and "Uncle Tom’s Cabin." They were uncomfortable for Black students to read. For that matter, they were uncomfortable for me to read. They were written to be uncomfortable.
I had read the books. I had learned their historic importance. What I couldn’t learn or very easily be taught is how reading those books would make a person feel who had descended from family members who had been held in slavery. And, frankly, at that young age, I don’t think I did truly learn it.
I’m older now and have a little better feel, though certainly not complete. While those books are an absolutely crucial piece of American history and essential for an understanding of their period, I also don’t think high school students who would have a difficult time with them should be exposed to them.
I’m not advocating for them to be banned. Just to be read by those who want to read them, and not forced on children who might not.
I mention "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" because some believe it helped to inspire "My Old Kentucky Home." Others believe it may have been inspired by a trip Foster made to the Federal Hill plantation in Bardstown, Kentucky.
The song was popular instantly upon its publication in 1852, and remained a popular song through the Civil War. It also caught the fancy of minstrel performers, who co-opted it for their own racist devices. How long can such images persist? In an episode of the award-winning drama "Mad Men," set in 1963 but aired in 2009, one of the lead characters sings "My Old Kentucky Home" in blackface, with the explanation that his wife “thought it was a scream.”
So, it has this history. It has this negative connotation to the modern listener. It also, like those books, has another history.
The nation’s foremost abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, credited "My Old Kentucky Home" and songs like it for stoking abolitionist sentiment, especially among white audiences. And that sentiment, he claimed, was an essential tenet in eventual emancipation.
I want to reprint the entire passage of Douglass’ autobiography, "My Bondage and My Freedom," that deals with "Uncle Tom’s Cabin," this song, and more. I think it’s important to read his context, and his thoughts, as a former slave and one who fought in the trenches against this original American sin.
“One flash from the heart-supplied intellect of Harriet Beecher Stowe could light a million camp fires in front of the embattled host of slavery, which not all the waters of the Mississippi, mingled as they are with blood, could extinguish,” Douglass writes. “The present will be looked to by after coming generations, as the age of anti-slavery literature — when supply on the gallop could not keep pace with the evergrowing demand — when a picture of a (Black) on the cover was a help to the sale of a book — when conservative lyceums and other American literary associations began first to select their orators for distinguished occasions from the ranks of the previously despised abolitionists.
“If the anti-slavery movement shall fail now, it will not be from outward opposition, but from inward decay. Its auxiliaries are everywhere. Scholars, authors, orators, poets, and statesmen give it their aid. The most brilliant of American poets volunteer in its service. Whittier speaks in burning verse to more than thirty thousand, in the National Era. Your own Longfellow whispers, in every hour of trial and disappointment, ‘labor and wait.’ James Russell Lowell is reminding us that ‘men are more than institutions.’ Pierpont cheers the heart of the pilgrim in search of liberty, by singing the praises of ‘the north star.’ Bryant, too, is with us; and though chained to the car of party, and dragged on amidst a whirl of political excitement, he snatches a moment for letting drop a smiling verse of sympathy for the man in chains. The poets are with us.
“It would seem almost absurd to say it, considering the use that has been made of them, that we have allies in the Ethiopian songs; those songs that constitute our national music, and without which we have no national music. They are heart songs, and the finest feelings of human nature are expressed in them. "Lucy Neal, Old Kentucky Home," and "Uncle Ned," can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.”
So here we stand. With a great many who take offense to the song. With a great many who hold it dear, who rise at its first strains. The former will say that once a song is used in a racist enterprise, it is a racist song. Others will say that once it has served to help, even in a tiny way, to end the scourge of slavery, it should be preserved for that history.
What do you do? What do we do?
The song has been revised, though not until 1986, when its original lyrics and references to “darkies” were eliminated.
For now, the solution at Churchill Downs is to play the song, but not have it sung. But here is the fact, and a significant factor to consider, in my view, no matter whatever the track does with the song: The only reason it wasn’t sung by more than 100,000 fans at the track on Saturday is that there was nobody at the track.
I’ve been there for the spectacle many times. I’ve stood inside the dirt track and looked back at the grandstand, and the sound of their singing hits you like a wall. Even if Churchill doesn’t play that song in any way, in that moment, fans will sing it. They will sing it for their own reasons. And if you do away with the song, they will find a way to sing it even louder.
Ending that tradition might get the track (or University of Louisville sports teams, or those at the University of Kentucky, who also play the song at events) off the hook with those who want to see the song abolished, but it will not erase the song from the history of this state or those institutions or, most importantly, from the hearts of millions of Kentuckians.
This is an important moment in Kentucky. I know there is resistance to this movement being led right now by the Black community, but there is also unprecedented support. There have been Black Lives Matter rallies in Eastern Kentucky. Things that many from those parts wondered if they’d ever see.
The movement has lit “a million camp fires in front of the embattled host” of racism and injustice.
I don’t know what will happen to this song. It is not up to me to decide, nor should it be. It is up to all of us.
I do wonder if all vestiges of life from the time of slavery to be removed, if we aren’t in danger of the inevitable rise of claims that slavery never really existed at all. Don’t laugh. Efforts to rewrite history today are real. I wouldn’t have taken such things seriously a decade ago. Today, I do.
Regardless, Foster’s song still has, as Douglass said, the ability to “call forth a tear as well as a smile.”
As long as it is the right tear, and the right smile, perhaps the song can be remade in an acceptable image for our times today.
As the lone bugle played on Saturday, I had to wonder if it would be played the same way here again. I also knew that whatever happens, it will echo through these grounds forever.
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