Old Kentucky Home

I was walking with friends yesterday. We gather on the first Saturday of May each year to support those who have lost loved ones to suicide. The gathering includes sharing memories, a few tears, and a chance to walk with others and share stories. We’ve been walking formally in Rapid City fir sixteen years and I’ve been out for each walk.

Yesterday was a beautiful day for the walk and those gathered were enjoying the talking. The pace was a bit slower as we had little incentive to finish. As we strolled by the ball fields, we could hear the Star Spangled Banner from the PA system. The conversation paused as we listened to the familiar song. Most of us were, I suspect, thinking of the words to that song that we have known all of our lives. It wasn’t an interruption to our day, but rather a moment of pause and reflection. We appreciated the moment.

There is another tradition that involves singing and the first Saturday of May. Their weather wasn’t as nice as ours. The rain was pouring when the horses started toward the track at the Kentucky Derby. The parade of horses and jockeys is accompanied by the University of Louisville Marching Band playing “My Old Kentucky Home.” With only a couple of exceptions, that tradition has been part of the horse race since 1936. The crowd sings along, the lyrics memorized.

“My Old Kentucky Home” is the state song of Kentucky. It was written before the Civil War by Stephen Foster, sometimes considered to b the “father of American music.” He also has been known by some of his detractors as an appropriate of African culture. Foster is said by some to hav had a condescending attitude towards African Americans. Some have even claimed that he was racist. His songs certainly reflect the attitudes of his time, and racism was endemic in the culture. He is well known for “O Susanna,” “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and “Old Folks at Home” which most of us know by its opening line, “Way down upon the Swanee River . . .”

The song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” tells the story of a slave who has been sold by his master and is forced to leave Kentucky, bound for the Deep South. It tells of the brutal mistreatment that was in store for slaves: “The head must bow and the back will have to bend . . . In the field where the sugar-canes grow.” One might conclude that the song is a lament by a slave who is leaving the place of his birth headed for a place of even harsher servitude. The reality was that slavery was harsh in all states that practiced it. There was no good place to be a slave.

Pausing to think about the deep costs and wounds of slavery is important. It is a piece of our common story that is not particularly well-taught in our schools and increasingly is not well known by people. The controversy stirred up by Kanye West’s statement that made it sound like he thought that slavery was a chore made by Africans illustrates how our public discourse is often based in ignorance of the harsh realities of our history. We like to smooth over and sugar coat the telling of our story in ways that soften the harshness of the reality.

So it might b a good thing to pause and to think about the songs we sing and the traditions we hold.

I’m not a Kentuckian and I haven’t been a fan of horse racing. I’m not up to speed on all of the traditions of the sport. And, other than noting the names of the winners and paying attention enough to see of a horse wins the triple crown, I’m not up on the derby. I don’t have the worlds to “My Old Kentucky Home” memorized. State songs don’t gain the same kind of prominence in our minds that other songs do. I can’t even name, off the top of my head, the state songs of all of the states where I have lived.

Reading the words to the song, however, I can see how people would choose it as a state song. It is filled with nostalgia where “the corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,” where “birds make music all day.” But the song also speaks of Kentucky as a place where “By’n’by hard times comes a-knocking at the door.”

The song gained a bit of muting of its racial overtones when, in 1986, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law replacing the words “darky” and “darkies” with “people.” The altered lyrics are the ones sung at Churchill Downs. The song, with the updated words might be misleading. After all Churchill Downs is known to be a place that celebrates the south with the people all dressed up and waxing nostalgic about the old days in the Antebellum South with ladies in crinoline and dashing cavaliers. They have taken a song of lament from a dark time in our history and made it a song of nostalgia for the way things used to be. The problem with that kind of nostalgia is that often the past for which we long isn’t reality, but rather an idealized past.

Stephen Foster was not a native of Kentucky. He wrote a song based on his imagination. It is hard to know what he thought of Kentucky. If he thought that it was somehow a great place to be a slave and a place where slaves longed to go, he was mistaken in that notion. There was no such thing as a great place to be a slave. Slavery was brutal and wrong wherever it was practiced. Having work for slaves that was a bit less harsh is hardly something to be celebrated.

The history of Africans in America is a brutal scar on our history. And future generations deserve honesty when it is told. Cultural traditions may need to shift in order to tell the truth.

Sometimes it is good to pause and think as we repeat traditions that have been kept so long that we don’t examine their meanings.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!