The choice of My Old Kentucky Home as the state anthem must stand as the greatest irony in the history of state songs.
Stephen Foster’s homage to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, according to Wikipedia, was written in 1858, only a few years before the American Civil War. The Kentucky Legislature adopted it as the state song in 1928 on the eve of the stock market crash of 1929.
While the song is associated with the Sport of Kings’ premier horse race, the Kentucky Derby, the subject is not a happy one. Foster’s song of children rolling around on a cabin floor turns dark when times get tough. With the sun no longer shining bright, those living in the little cabin are forced from their home in an antebellum version of foreclosure.
“By 'n' by Hard Times comes a-knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.”
Kentuckians who sing the song with pride in the Bluegrass State do so without realizing that Foster wrote a verse lamenting slaves being sold down the River (into the deep South).
The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darky may go;
A few more days, and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow;
A few more days for to tote the weary load,
No matter, 'twill never be light;
A few more days till we totter on the road,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.
Being sold down the Mississippi River meant the work was harder and hotter in the sugar cane fields and rice paddies of the Deep South. Families were not sold together. Escape became virtually impossible. While escape from Kentucky meant crossing the Ohio River, escape from Mississippi, Louisiana or Alabama meant a thousand mile trek through hostile territory. Few slaves made it to freedom.
My Old Kentucky Home, the shrine in Bardstown to the South as we like to imagine, is a creative fiction. Thousands of tourists leave believing that Foster wrote the song to honor the fine and gentle life in the Old South. That’s not the way it went down. But the truth doesn’t bring in tourist dollars.
Human nature has always rewritten uncomfortable history. Forgetting bad bits is universal. We Kentuckians are not immune.
In fact, we do it every time we sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”