Posted on May 9, 2022

Once Again, Churchill Downs Will Ignore the Racist Ties to ‘My Old Kentucky Home’

Pat Forde, Sports Illustrated, May 6, 2022

Emily Bingham picked the lunch spot for our interview, and let’s just say the choice of restaurant was smart and shrewd on her part.


This was the perfect—and perfectly cheeky—location to discuss Bingham’s new book, My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song. It is an unflinching, brilliantly written study of the song that is synonymous with the Derby—the one that will bring as many as 150,000 horse racing fans to their feet at Churchill on Saturday, many with tears in their eyes, as they boozily sing along to Stephen Foster’s 1853 tune.

How many of those 150,000 know that “My Old Kentucky Home” is steeped in racism? Whitewashed and inauthentically presented as Southern sentimentalism? Packaged as a paean to soft-edged nostalgia, when in reality its lyrics tell a tale of a slave being taken from his family and sold downriver to die on a sugarcane plantation?

It’s not just that racist terms for Black people had to be changed to “people” in the latter half of the 20th century, in varying stages by various institutions, to make the singing more palatable. It’s not just the second and third verses, rarely sung, that paint an increasingly bleak picture of a displaced slave’s existence. It’s more than that.

It’s everything else that the song became: a mainstay of minstrel shows produced and performed by white people in blackface, a symbol of the romanticized “Lost Cause” version of the Confederacy, a one-size-fits-all prop for patriotism, and the underpinning of a Kentucky state park and tourist attraction based almost entirely on fraudulent narrative.

Read Bingham’s book, and some Derby goers may never stand and sing “My Old Kentucky Home” again. The 58-year-old Louisville native, historian, author and lecturer at Bellarmine University certainly won’t.

“I don’t believe it can be wrong to love a song, but I do believe we commit wrongs when we do not understand what we claim to love,” she wrote. “{snip} Nearly 170 years ago, Foster copyrighted Black loss for white pleasure, comfort, and distraction. Over time, American society erected ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ as a sonic monument—impressive, opaque, and also contested—to white feeling and white forgetting, to a nation’s own segregated memory.”


{snip} Foster, considered by many to be the father of American pop music but struggling badly to make a living at the time, produced a catchy melody and wrote lyrics derived from the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The song became a fixture of traveling minstrel shows, wherein white actors performed demeaning Black stereotypes that somehow were hailed as “authentic” depictions.

After the Civil War, part of the false interpretation and marketing of the song was the notion that slaves were happy in their station and grateful to their benevolent white owners. Thus, in the repurposing of Foster’s song, the slave sold downriver missed his carefree existence in Kentucky. This was an element of the post-Reconstruction softening of what the Confederacy was and what it stood for, part of redirecting memory toward the “Lost Cause” and away from the reality of America’s Original Sin.

Later in the country’s history, the song was expropriated altogether as white Old South experience. {snip}


Circling back to the Kentucky Derby: Matt Winn, the irrepressible marketer who helped turn Churchill into a cathedral of American sport, first linked the Derby and “My Old Kentucky Home” in a powerful partnership in 1931. The song was nearly 80 years old then, but it gained fresh currency as the Derby became one of the signature sporting events of spring. Since then, the bonds between horse race and song have deepened.


Churchill has made several public efforts to promote greater diversity and inclusion in horse racing. {snip}

{snip} The financial commitment is a tangible step, but don’t expect it to be accompanied by a symbolic disassociation with “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“It’s the state song,” Churchill Downs Incorporated CEO Bill Carstanjen says. “It has been for over 100 years. It’s overwhelmingly supported by our fans. It’s part of the tradition, part of the fabric of the event. We plan to continue playing it with our signature event.”