The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song
How does a song about slavery become a beloved melody, a celebratory anthem, and an integral part of American folklore and culture?
The state song of Kentucky since the 1920s, sung each May before every Derby as the horses step onto the track for the post parade, “My Old Kentucky Home” has inhabited hearts and memories in perpetual reprise.
Written by Stephen Foster nine years before the Civil War, the song had a decades-long run as a national blackface minstrel sensation, marketed Kentucky to tourists, was referenced in the pages of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and sung on The Simpsons and Mad Men. It has been recorded as an American standard in both high and low cultures, by the bass baritone Paul Robeson, son of a former slave, and by Marian Anderson, contralto singer of opera and spirituals and the high priestess of American musicians; by Al Jolson, Russian-American singer, comedian, actor, vaudevillian, known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” at his peak and, by modern critics, as “the racist king of blackface performers;” by the ultimate baritone crooner, Bing Crosby, entertainer of millions, as well as by Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Shore, John Prine, Johnny Depp, and Lyle Lovett; even George Burns, Mickey Rooney, and Looney Tunes star Bugs Bunny have sung its nostalgia-steeped words.
My Old Kentucky Home unearths performances, recordings, and protests, tracing one song’s entrance into the bloodstream of American life and through to its twenty-first century reassessment. This revelatory account of how a melody can be so memorable but also so formed by forgetting is a story for a country yearning for healing.