“My Old Kentucky Home,” the controversial state song, will be performed at this year’s Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs vice president of communications Tonya Abeln confirmed via email Monday.
“Churchill Downs gives careful consideration to our traditions each year,” Abeln wrote to WFPL News. “For this year’s Kentucky Derby, we are welcoming the University of Louisville marching band and the accompanying U of L choir to perform the state song of Kentucky.”
Amid racial justice protests in Louisville, Churchill Downs modified the song’s presentation in 2020 with a solo bugler playing it after a “moment of silence and reflection.” The adjustment came after activists demanded the entire event be called off or for Churchill Downs to at least take a stand following the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.
In 2021, Churchill Downs invited the University of Louisville marching band to perform the song without the traditional accompaniment of a choir, due to ongoing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
Abeln said, last year, “the band was represented by approximately half the number of members as usual.”
“My Old Kentucky Home” is said to have been a part of Derby Day traditions since the 1920s, evolving to something of an annual sing-along with people in the grandstand sometimes crying as they join in verse.
The song, written by Stephen Foster, tells the story of a person who is enslaved being sold down river, where conditions would be harsher.
Its inclusion in Derby and its position as the official state song, as well as the composer’s original intention, have been debated for decades. While some claim it’s an anti-slavery song, Louisville author and historian Emily Bingham has pushed back against that.
Bingham, who recently released a book about “My Old Kentucky Home,” told WFPL News in 2020 it has roots in minstrel performance.
“It was written by a white man from Pennsylvania about a Black person being sold down river from Kentucky to the Deep South, to be sung by white men pretending to be Black men on stages for white audiences,” she said.
And the Kentucky General Assembly revised the song’s lyrics in the 1980s to remove offensive terms and verses more explicitly about slavery.
“If Churchill Downs claims to be doing the work in race, equity and diversity, we don’t get there singing about slavery,” Louisville poet, artist and activist Hannah Drake told WFPL News in 2021.