Cover Image: My Old Kentucky Home

My Old Kentucky Home

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I know very little about the Kentucky Derby, but apparently the singing of this song was an important part of it. Bingham examines the Stephen Foster song, excoriating its racist lyrics. It's been remembered as a sweet song sung by someone longing for the past, but a close look at the lyrics paint a very different picture. The song is also a gateway to her thorough research, much of it hard to read, discussing how black musicians were treated in the 19th and early 20th century, and the prevalence of blackface minstrelsy. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC.
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Historian Emily Bingham’s My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song provides readers with a detailed, thoroughly researched account not only of Stephen Foster’s song and the legends that sprouted up around it, but also of the racial context from which song and legends grew and within which they have flourished for nearly 170 years. Born into the Bingham family that bought the Louisville Courier Journal in 1918 and eventually also controlled the Louisville Times and WHAS radio and TV, Emily Bingham makes a strong case for systemic racism and the need for reckoning and change.

Bingham begins by discussing Foster’s 1852 catalyst, the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s cabin, which gave rise to his first draft of a song titled “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night,” “depoliticized” and published the next year as “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!” Tracing Foster’s career, Bingham also points out how the song portrayed black folks’ fond memories of plantation life in Kentucky as, historically, slaves were fleeing to Canada to escape forced return to their owners under the Fugitive Slave Act.

The remaining nine chapters follow in roughly chronological order, covering white minstrelsy, black minstrelsy, the Spanish American War and St. Louis world’s fair, early 20th century ”Black Uplift,” The story of Josiah Kirby Lilly (of Eli Lilly drug company) and his Foster collection, the campaign to turn the decaying Rowan home in Bardstown, Kentucky into a major tourist attraction as automobile travel increased, the Black Power movement and strengthening the myths behind the song—a few steps forward and backward, and the later 20th century. 

Bingham then ends with a “Coda,” bringing readers up to the song’s use as a COVID “balm” until George Floyd’s death on a Minneapolis street and Breonna Taylor’s shooting death in her own Kentucky home opened some eyes and prompted a few questions—but still not enough.

Throughout each section, Bingham ties history to song, showing changes made to the lyric, appearances of the song in traveling shows and films and the controversies surrounding those productions, failed attempts to debunk false narratives, and much more.  

Emily Bingham spares no one, least of all herself, a native-born Kentuckian who grew up attending the Kentucky Derby, seeing tears of pride in spectator’s eyes as horses approached the starting gate to the strains of “My Old Kentucky home,” feeling her own sense of pride, and believing everything she heard—until she didn’t believe any longer.  This powerful book results from years of research.  

Although narrative history, with never a footnote number, My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song includes extensive sources clearly linked to the main text by order and identified by brief quotes.  Although this citation method does not work well for ebooks, where clicking on a footnote number typically pops up a citation window, one could argue that it’s less disruptive to reading.  In a print copy, the reader wanting to check source citations frequently could use a bookmark in the back to keep track of progress.

Novelist, short story writer, and critic Bobbie Ann Mason--a fellow native Kentuckian of Bingham--aptly
sums up this urgent study:  “Emily Bingham has painstakingly created a history quilt out of the intricacies of the profound effects of a single song on American culture. The result is wonder and dismay—and a lesson for today in how propaganda works. The story is compelling because it is about us, all Americans. 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 doesn’t let us escape. We’re gripped by the story and enlightened by her telling. She delves into some of the deepest issues America has ever faced, issues that are still unresolved. This book is not simply about lyrics of a song but how that song has been used to tell a lie.”

Some readers will be screaming “Critical Race Theory!”  All the more reason to read Bingham’s book.

Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for an advance reader copy.
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Stephen Foster was America’s first hit songwriter and his songs were iconic when I was growing up. I remember a friend who particularly loved I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair. And, I remember my dad asking me to play Old Black Joe while he quietly sang along. I strummed the guitar and sang Oh! Susannah! to entertain my young son (the version without the racist lyrics), and played Beautiful Dreamer on the piano.

How does Foster fare in the 21st c? How do we react to music that arose from such a different era? As a young preteen, I didn’t think much about Old Black Joe being a slave–I hadn’t even studied the Civil War in history class.

I had heard of My Old Kentucky Home, but I had never sang it. It wasn’t part of my heritage. We drove through Kentucky on vacation once. Emily Bingham is a native with ancestors who were slave owners. She loved horses and the Kentucky Derby. And, she is a historian grappling with her heritage. I was curious about My Old Kentucky Home and the song’s musical, social and political history.

Bingham traces the song’s development from Foster’s inspiration in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was used in blackface minstrel shows. The erasure of it’s slave cabin imagery and expropriation by white Southerners turned it into a nostalgic hymn to plantation life. It was used to promote Kentucky as a tourist attraction and became the veritable anthem of Churchill Downs. It’s lyrics were used for white supremist book titles!

The song’s reclamation changed “The darkies were gay” to “everyone was gay”, and “the darkies must part” to “a friend must part.” The changes also masked the song’s racist history.

Bingham presents a deep exploration of the hidden racism in traditions we nostalgically cling to.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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Delightful historical book about southern history through the lyrics of one American song.  I was absolutely enthralled with this nonfiction book.  Incredibly interesting and relevant!
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