Arts and Culture

“My Old Kentucky Home” will be performed before this weekend’s Run for the Roses, a Kentucky Derby spokesperson said Monday.

In an email, Darren Rogers with Churchill Downs said, “the state song will be performed,” but did not respond to follow-up questions about what that will look and sound like. 

During last year’s Derby, organizers modified the song’s presentation amid racial justice protests as a number of demonstrators demanded that the Derby be called off all together in 2020.

A solo bugler performed the song, without lyrics, last September at Churchill Downs during the Derby, which was rescheduled due to the pandemic. It was preceded by a “moment of silence and reflection.” 

For years, the song has sparked controversy. 

Some claim that it conveys an anti-slavery sentiment. The song tells the story of an enslaved person being sold down river, where conditions would be harsher.

But the man who wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” Stephen Foster, was not an abolitionist, historian Emily Bingham told WFPL last fall.  

“It is true that he was writing in the midst of the bestseller success of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ the anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe,” Bingham, who is working on a book about the song, said. “And it is true that his original version of the song was about Uncle Tom and not my old Kentucky home… but he was producing music for the blackface minstrel stage.”

She said he contributed to a kind of entertainment that only perpetuated hurtful stereotypes of Black people.

During his briefing on Monday, when asked directly about whether it was time to retire “My Old Kentucky Home” and find a new state song, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said he had not “specifically heard those concerns personally from community leaders.”  

“It’s always right to have these conversations, but it’s one that’s going to take a little longer than the next week,” he said. “But when people are hurt by something… I think it’s incumbent on us to say please tell me why, let me listen and let me try to hear.”

The conversation about “My Old Kentucky Home” has been ongoing for at least 40 years.

The state legislature changed the song’s lyrics in the 1980s to remove offensive terms and verses more explicitly about slavery, and for years, there’s been calls to not include the tune at the Derby and to ditch it as the state’s official song due to its racist roots. NPR covered it five years ago. Stories at the Washington Post, Courier Journal and local news outlets have discussed it just about annually since then.

In an op-ed originally published in 2019, Courier Journal columnist Joe Gerth wrote that it’s “time to stop” this Derby tradition and pick a different state song.

“Even the dispiriting ‘Kentucky Gambler’ by Merle Haggard would be better,” he wrote. “And it’s about a guy who leaves his wife and four kids, only to lose all his money in Nevada casinos.”  

“They should have left that song in the past when they left that line in the past,” Ricky Jones, chair of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, told the Courier Journal in 2019

Kentucky Derby Festival, Churchill Downs and Humana recently launched a “Derby Equity and Community Initiative,” which didn’t address the song in a press release. 

According to a news release, the initiative will have a “focus on how to best respond to community needs.”

Louisville poet and activist Hannah Drake wonders how a decision to uphold a tradition like singing “My Old Kentucky Home” aligns with these new plans for creating a more equitable and inclusive Derby. Drake mentioned the song last September in an open letter to Churchill Downs titled “Let Them Eat Cake.” 

“If Churchill Downs claims to be doing the work in race, equity and diversity, we don’t get there singing about slavery,” she said in a text message.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.