Churchill Downer: The Forgotten Racial History Of Kentucky's State Song : Code Switch "My Old Kentucky Home" is sung every year at the Kentucky Derby. Written in 1852 as an anti-slavery ballad, the song has a more sinister meaning upon closer examination.
NPR logo

Churchill Downer: The Forgotten Racial History Of Kentucky's State Song

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/476890004/476994049" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Churchill Downer: The Forgotten Racial History Of Kentucky's State Song

Churchill Downer: The Forgotten Racial History Of Kentucky's State Song

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/476890004/476994049" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

With a song people sing without quite knowing what it means, it is the Kentucky state song, which will be part of the annual ritual of tomorrow's Kentucky Derby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK JOHNSON: Please rise and sing along as the University of Louisville marching band plays "My Old Kentucky Home."

INSKEEP: People wearing crazy hats holding mint juleps sing the words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: (Singing) The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) It's summer, the people are gay.

INSKEEP: It seems to be about people who miss their happy home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME")

JOHN PRINE: (Singing) Weep no more, my lady. Oh, weep no more today.

INSKEEP: And that line about weeping, sung there by John Prine, makes people weep. Yet, a man who grew up in Kentucky suspects that most people miss the point.

FRANK X WALKER: I love my state, but at the same time, you know, the memories, the history this conjures up, I think people sing it and it's totally disconnected from the history, from the truth.

INSKEEP: Frank X Walker is a former poet laureate of Kentucky. He read through some of the lyrics with us.

WALKER: The young folks roll on the little cabin floor, all merry, all happy and bright. By and by hard times come knocking at the door, then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

INSKEEP: What's happening there?

WALKER: Well, it sounds like a happy family environment in a humble cabin experience.

INSKEEP: Sounds like but there's something more. The great composer Stephen Foster wrote this song in the 1850s before the Civil War. And the characters having to leave Kentucky, were slaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) By and by hard times come knocking at the door, then my old Kentucky home, good night.

INSKEEP: And what's happening, I guess, is the owner ran out of money and the people who were enslaved were being sold down river. Wasn't that the phrase? You'd be sold...

WALKER: For the South.

INSKEEP: Where life was considered even more brutal.

WALKER: And harder. And not just more brutal, but with a shorter life expectancy.

INSKEEP: People today rarely sing the song's final verse. That verse shows the slaves are going to sugarcane plantations where they might be worked to death in the sun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME")

PAUL ROBESON: (Singing) A few more days and the trouble all will end, in the field where the sugarcanes grow.

INSKEEP: That's the entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, who did sing the final verse generations ago. Another part of the song has vanished today. Stephen Foster's original lyric called the slaves darkies. Today, that offensive word is not sung, but that leaves no explicit reference to black people. The truth is "My Old Kentucky Home" was originally sold as an antislavery song. Not only that, poet Frank X Walker thinks Stephen Foster wrote a lousy antislavery song.

WALKER: You know, he wasn't from Kentucky, so he imagined or he witnessed something that suggested that it was a great place to be a slave. And my issue is that there were no good places to be enslaved.

INSKEEP: So when I go through this story, I feel a tragedy. It's not nostalgic, it actually hurts.

WALKER: Now you're in my territory. And for me, when I hear the song, if I would shed a tear, it would be for the pain of those who suffered in that way.

INSKEEP: Walker would like people to know that story, even if they always thought they were hearing a simple romantic song of home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Oh, the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Theme music written by BJ Leiderman, arranged by Jim Pew. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.