LOUISVILLE, Ky. — “My Old Kentucky Home,” the controversial state song that was modified ahead of last year’s Kentucky Derby, will be played before the 147th running of the race this Saturday, a Churchill Downs spokesperson confirmed to Spectrum News 1.
“The state song will be performed,” Darren Rogers, senior director for communications and media services, wrote in an email. He did not respond to follow-up questions about whether the lyrics will accompany the music.
Last year, Churchill Downs presented what it called a “thoughtfully and appropriately modified” version of the song, which was performed by bugler Steve Buttleman without any lyrics. It was also preceded by a moment of silence.
Traditionally, the University of Louisville marching band plays the state song prior to the run for the roses. Band representatives did not respond to questions about whether it will be involved with the playing of the song this year.
That decision to modify the song’s playing in 2020 came amid a summer of protests for racial justice in Louisville and around the country. As The Derby, delayed due to the pandemic, approached last September, some called for Churchill Downs to dispense with the tradition of playing “My Old Kentucky Home” due to its history as a minstrel song with racially-insensitive lyrics (in the 1980s, lawmakers officially removed the word "darkies" from the lyrics).
Micheal Jones, a historian and writer who curated an exhibit on Kentucky music at the Frazier History Museum, told Spectrum News 1 last summer that the song is from the viewpoint of an ex-slave who left Kentucky. “He was remembering the place where he had been enslaved, but he wasn’t necessarily remembering it fondly,” Jones said.
Prior to Buttleman’s instrumental rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” last year, the Churchill Downs announcer called for a moment of silence, explaining that it was a time to reflect on racial inequities in the nation.
“As our nation grapples with its own history and works to create a more equitable future for all, please join us in a moment of silence as we pause to recognize the inequities that many in our nation still face and reflect on renewed hope for a more just country to truly take root, grow and flourish,” he said.
Recently, Churchill Downs has sought to put action behind those words with the launch of The Derby Equity and Community Initiative (DECI) in partnership with the Kentucky Derby Festival and Humana Inc. The DECI aims "to incorporate equitable programming into The Derby season with the intention of directing economic impact and ensuring a sense of belonging to Louisville communities that have encountered a lack of access to those opportunities and the spirit of Derby season," according to a release.
It is also providing financial support to groups such as Justice Now, which is working with Jefferson County Public School students who want to learn how to advocate for social justice.
For some though, these efforts are diminished by the track’s decision to continue playing "My Old Kentucky Home."
“You don’t get to speak about equity and race relations while singing songs about slavery,” local poet and activist Hannah Drake wrote on Twitter. “Period.”