My Old Kentucky Home

The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song

Knopf | May 3, 2022


How did a minstrel song about the slave trade become a beloved melody, a celebratory anthem, and an integral part of American folklore and culture? Acclaimed historian Emily Bingham’s new book, explores the compelling history of Stephen Foster’s 1853 “My Old Kentucky Home,” which tried to present slavery as carefree while also telling a wrenching story of a man sold to die in the sugarcane fields of the Deep South. The song—for years sung by white men in blackface entertaining white audiences—was a sensation and has been with us ever since.

For almost two centuries, its lyrics and meaning have been protested, altered, mythologized in thousands of performances—from Bing Crosby to Bugs Bunny to John Prine and Prissy in Gone with the Wind—and enshrined as the state song of Kentucky. Every year at the world’s most important horse race, the Kentucky Derby, “My Old Kentucky Home” is sung by tens of thousands of nostalgic fans, almost all of them unknowingly conjuring a mythic version of a brutal past.

Bingham, a Louisville-native offers a deeply researched as well as a personal and incisive biography of one of America’s most iconic melodies. In this resonant history, we see the enduring ability to forget and deny the realities of slavery, and Bingham, by casting an unflinching eye on our cultural inheritance, leads us to the promise of a reckoning.

“A beautiful book. I was taken aback by how the song and its history, and Foster’s own history, are so much a part of our ongoing story. Bingham’s writing is compelling, and humbling, and moving.”—Rosanne Cash, singer, songwriter, and author

Emily Bingham has painstakingly created a history quilt and the result is wonder and dismay—and a lesson for today in how propaganda works. The song ties us together or divides us in ways that can make you shudder to know your part in it. And yet that seductive melody is there, drawing us along through our complicated history. Bingham’s book is not simply about lyrics of a song but how that song has been used to tell a lie. —Bobbie Ann Mason, author of In Country and Dear Ann

“A song is not just a song in Emily Bingham’s My Old Kentucky Home. She tells a personal and passionate history of how a song revered in her home state has been understood and misunderstood for generations and what it says about America’s continued struggle to understand race. Her writing is as lovely as the song’s melody; her argument is as jarring as its lyrics.”—Joe Drape, author of New York Times Bestseller American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise.

“One song, in Emily Bingham’s brilliant hands, brings history and memory together in ways all Americans must confront if we are ever truly to hear one another.”—Timothy Tyson, author of the New York Times bestseller The Blood of Emmett Till.