"The Sun Shines Bright on My Old Kentucky Home…”
The lyrics of Kentucky’s state song bring a tear to the eye of even the most cynical track-goer. In fact, one of the most sentimental moments of Kentucky Derby Day is when the crowd – led bythe University of Louisville Marching Band—sings Stephen Foster’s nostalgic ballad, My Old Kentucky Home. But did you know that My Old Kentucky Home was once regarded as a powerful anti-slavery message?
The story goes that songwriter Stephen Foster, whom many consider to be the father of American music, wrote My Old Kentucky Home in 1852, after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The original lyrics of the ballad told the story of enslaved servants who’d been sold from a peaceful and happy life in Kentucky into a harsh existence in the Deep South. The grief of the narrators as they recall better times with their families led famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass to note that the song engenders "the sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish."
The lyrics of My Old Kentucky Home were later adapted to reflect a more generalized nostalgia for the Bluegrass State. The ballad was first played at the Kentucky Derby and was named Kentucky’s state song in 1928. Kentucky Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler famously sang the song at University of Kentucky basketball games, and actor Johnny Depp led what could easily be characterized as the weirdest version at a memorial service for his fellow Kentuckian, writer Hunter S. Thompson. The Bardstown, Kentucky mansion that is said to be the setting for My Old Kentucky Home has been a beloved state park since the 1930s, and the song is now associated with the greatest aspects of Kentucky, especially The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.
On Derby Day, before you place your bets and sip your julep, please take a moment to sing along to My Old Kentucky Home and remember that the song has a history of both social justice and deep love for the Commonwealth of Kentucky!
“…For The Old Kentucky Home, Far Away…”
This post was brought to you by The Kentucky Derby Book, an interactive media experience that brings The Run for the Roses ® to your coffee table.