Monday, May 8, 2023

Weep no more

Someone has suggested on Twitter that it is time for the Kentucky Derby to dump "My Old Kentucky Home," and as an expatriate Kentuckian, I want to object. The very things that make the song objectionable are the very reasons to keep it.  

The author, Stephen Foster, wrote it and other songs for minstrel shows. Minstrel shows, you will recall, were nineteenth-century entertainments in which white people donned blackface and performed songs and dances that were cartoonish parodies of Black culture, for the amusement of white audiences. In the plaintive song itself, a black family of enslaved people who have been sold down the river recall with nostalgia and grief their happier life back in Kentucky, before hard times came knocking at the door. 

You cannot ask for a better illustration of woke history than the spectacle at the Derby of pudgy men in their ice-cream suits and before-Memorial Day seersucker and their ladies in elaborate millinery singing this song. Recognizing the casual racism pervasive in the past and its unexamined survivals today explains much about the double nature of the Republic. 

My own old Kentucky home, the farm my grandfather inherited from his father, where I roamed the fields as a child, is gone, sold to people better qualified to work the land than I am. It, too, has a double history, illustrated by a property tax receipt from in 1850s showing that my great-great grandfather owned two hundred acres, four horses or mules, and four human beings. If you are a thinking person, you learn to recognize and live with both sides of your history. 

So when the band strikes up on Derby Day, I too will stand and sing of the old Kentucky home, far away, for good and for ill. 


After three decades in Baltimore, a digression.

From time to time some yahoo will suggest replacing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem, usually with "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America." 

It's true that Francis Scott Key's text objects to British encouragement of slave rebellions during the War of 1812, but that's in a verse we never sing, and he brings in God in the last verse, which we also never sing. The reason to keep the national anthem is that the only part we actually sing does not go in for triumphalism but asks us a question: Have we lived up to the ideals we proclaimed at the founding? That is a question worth asking every day.

As to the others, "America the Beautiful," with its insipid melody, keeps dragging God in, and "God Bless America," though Irving Berlin could write a catchier tune, does the same. God has many nations to look after, and it would be selfish of us to monopolize the Deity.