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Book review: Book reveals deeply troubling origins of Kentucky state anthem

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Earlier this month, the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby took place. Rich Strike, the horse that crossed the finish line first, was an unexpected winner. But the song that played before the derby was not unexpected. “My Old Kentucky Home” is the tune that brings thousands to their feet, mint juleps in hand and tears in their eyes. It shouldn’t.

Emily Bingham has produced a book about Stephen Foster’s famous song “My Old Kentucky Home.” Her research into the song’s creation—and many iterations—is deep and troubling. Foster, who died an alcoholic with 38 cents in his pocket at age 37, wrote the song for minstrel shows. It was originally titled “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night,” a reference to the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The original lyrics use racist slurs and tell of a slave who was sold south to work in the sugarcane fields. Before he died there, his final thoughts were of how he missed the old slave cabin in Kentucky.

The original sheet music showed a rustic slave cabin. Yet a few decades later, the image of the Kentucky home became a mansion with columns. That image became fuel for marketing gurus in the state who turned an actual home in Louisville, Federal Hill, into a tourist destination. Visitors were told that Foster wrote his song there. Not true. (Foster was from Pittsburgh and although he may have visited, he did not write music there.) Eventually, Foster’s music became the official state song of Kentucky. The racist lyrics were not changed until 1986.

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Bingham writes about how Black performers sang “My Old Kentucky Home” because audiences demanded it. The song had become a nostalgic reminder of The Lost Cause. Servicemen sang it during WWI and WWII. Japanese children learned the lyrics in school. The song continues to be pervasive in America, where most people hear pretty music having no idea what the song is about.

Bingham is from a noted Louisville family that owned local newspapers and media outlets for years. She is an excellent writer who has filled the book with information and photos that add weight to her prodigious research.

When I watched the derby and heard “My Old Kentucky Home,” it had a different sound. From now on, it always will.

Penny A Parrish is a freelance writer in Stafford County.

Penny A Parrish is a freelance writer in Stafford County.

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