Besides being “Pride Day” here in our happy valley, the first Saturday in May is the traditional “Derby Day” at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. That’s the day the city and the horse racing world goes crazy with the annual running of the Kentucky Derby, this year the 149th!
In keeping with the day, I find myself musing about one of America’s most familiar songs: Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night”—a beautiful, sentimental, easy-to-sing song that has become a traditional highlight, along with big hats and bourbon, of the race day festivities at the Derby.
I think it’s worth going “’round the track” on this theme, however, so let’s start with our song as it as has been reimagined for today. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a look and listen.
Probably few folks among those singing their hearts out in the stands at Churchill Downs—Black or White or Other—know of the song’s original lyrics and are aware of its deep anti-slavery message. So, let’s go back and take a look at Foster’s song as HE imagined it.
A reading of its history tells us that “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night” was written in 1852, and that Foster was inspired by reading the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” His thought was to put the message of the book into music and he initially named his song “Poor Old Uncle Tom, Good Night.”
The song as Foster wrote it wasn’t meant to tell a pretty story of a pretty place, nor did it lend itself to minstrelsy as so many of his other so-called “plantation melodies” did.
Rather, it’s a musical lament that was embraced by the anti-slavery, pro-abolition movement of the times and its leaders, including Frederick Douglass. It’s a song that many historians say made a difference in its day.
There are three verses and a chorus in Foster’s original song. The first verse speaks of an elderly slave’s looking back in time and recounting the loss of his former home and community, albeit in the slave quarter of a Kentucky plantation.
Then “hard times come knocking at the door” and our narrator tells that, to get enough cash to pay off his master’s heavy debts, he and his wife and children had been sold “down the river.”
The chorus has our narrator pleading with his wife to “weep no more” for our old Kentucky home “far away,” while in the second verse, he remembers his former friends and family who “sing no more” by the “old cabin door.”
He then tells of the heavy burdens of his harsh new life toiling in the sugarcane fields of the deep South, far away from their “old Kentucky home.” In the last verse, he laments that “the head must bow and the back will have to bend,” wherever the slave is forced to go, and that he, himself, has only a “a few more days to tote the weary load.”
Foster’s song was not meant to be a nostalgic homage to a contented and bucolic life in ante-bellum Kentucky.
Rather, it focused on the unfair and inhumane treatment of slaves. It strived to bring awareness to its listeners of the unspeakable hardships that slaves and slave families were forced to endure as property rather than people.
Now let’s take a listen to our song as Foster intended it to be. Needless to say, you didn’t hear it quite this way in today’s Derby version, rinsed of both original intent and the language of the day. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to hear his message.
Think how, in its day and in its small way, a song about a STOLEN homeplace could became a tool to help end the scar of slavery in America. And think how, today, our song lives on but reimagined into a celebration of a NOSTALGIC homeplace. It’s a beautiful song sung heartfully in the bright sunshine of a world-watching sporting event. But, it’s a song tinged with a dark, shape-defining shadow. When the light of history is shone upon it, we are helped to see into the past. And, hopefully, to learn from it.
Now, having done my musicological preaching for the day, Alison and I will still enjoy a mint julep, watch the beauty of horses running ‘round the furlongs on Derby Day, and muse about the beautiful blue grass and fast horses of Kentucky today . . .
. . . and the not so beautiful history of the old Kentucky of slavery days—”My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” a song from the past rinsed and reimagined for today.
So, let’s “weep no more” and pause to reflect with a traditional mint julep in hand, not the watery $13 souvenir glassful sold at the Kentucky Derby today. But, I digress.
Our recipe for the real thing: Over crushed ice in a silver julep cup, add a scant teaspoon of simple syrup flavored with crushed mint from your garden. Top this with as much Kentucky bourbon (100 proof, if you have it) as the cup and you can handle, and garnish with a fresh mint sprig. Sip through a thin straw. Repeat as often as you like—for tradition and to reflect on what history can teach us.
And, yes, STAY TUNED!