LOUISVILLE, Ky. —For the past 99 years, “My Old Kentucky Home” has rung through Churchill Downs before the running of the Kentucky Derby. The tradition turns 100 Saturday, but in a year that has seen so many parts of modern society reconsidered, the playing of Stephen Foster’s 1853 minstrel song will look different this time around.
Not only will “My Old Kentucky Home” be played in front of an empty track because of the ongoing pandemic, it will be preceded by a moment of silence and other modifications, Churchill Downs said in a statement Friday.
“After careful consideration, Churchill Downs will be playing ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ this year prior to the Kentucky Derby,” the statement said, “however, the 100-year tradition of singing the state song of Kentucky has been thoughtfully and appropriately modified and will be preceded by a moment of silence and reflection.”
The announcement came after track representatives raised the possibility that the song would not be played at all at the 146th running of the Derby. It also came a day after the track acknowledged the history of racism in horse racing and pledged to do more to combat it. “We are committed to taking real, concrete action to address institutional roadblocks to progress and playing our part in advancing the changes America so desperately need,” the statement said. It added that the “atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby will be different this year” in light of the calls for racial justice around the country and in the track’s own backyard.
For some, “My Old Kentucky Home” has long been a symbol of the type of systemic racism activists are now fighting to change. Ironically though, it began as an abolitionist song, says Michael L. Jones, a writer and historian who curated an exhibit on Kentucky music at the Frazier History Museum.
“Originally, when Stephen Foster wrote it, the song was meant to be sung by an ex-slave who had been separated from his family,” Jones said. “He was remembering the place where he had been enslaved, but he wasn’t necessarily remembering it fondly.”
Over the years, the song lost its original meaning, Jones said. In the 1920s, when the L&N railroad brought many ex-Confederates to Louisville, the song was caught up in the “imagery of the lost cause.”
“Since then it’s been controversial,” Jones said. “Generations of African-Americans have been trying to change that.”
In the 1980s, Kentucky’s General Assembly changed the lyrics, replacing the word “darkies” with “people.” And now, in a summer gripped by a popular backlash to racial inequity, and major protests in Louisville, some have called for the song and the Derby itself to be canceled.
Instead, the race will go on, and so too will the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” But like so much else in 2020, both will be unlike anything we’ve seen before.