|"My Old Kentucky Home"|
Sheet music, 10th edition, 1892(?)
"My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" is an anti-slavery ballad written by Stephen Foster, probably composed in 1852. It was published in January 1853 by Firth, Pond, & Co. of New York. Foster was likely inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, with imagery witnessed on his visits to the Bardstown, Kentucky farm called Federal Hill.
In Foster's sketchbook, the song was originally entitled "Poor Uncle Tom, Good-Night!", but he altered it to "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" Frederick Douglass wrote in his 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom that the song "awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish".
The creation of the song "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" established a decisive moment within Stephen Foster's career in regard to his personal beliefs on the institution of slavery. It also is an example of the common theme of the loss of home, which is prevalent throughout Foster's work. In March 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in bookstores in Foster's hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The novel, written about the plight of a slave in Kentucky, had a profound effect on Foster's future songwriting by altering the tone of his music to sympathize the position of the enslaved person. In his notebook, Foster penned the lyrics inspired by Stowe's novel, initially named "Poor Old Uncle Tom, Good-Night!" Foster ultimately removed references to Stowe's book, renaming the work, "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!"
Foster's song includes distinct Kentucky imagery. Foster's brother Morrison indicated in correspondence that Foster was an "occasional visitor" to Federal Hill, owned by Foster's relations, the Rowan family of Bardstown, Kentucky. The Foster and Rowan family's close relationship appears to have been initiated through Stephen's sister Charlotte who stayed with the Rowans at Federal Hill in 1828. While Charlotte lived with the Rowan family, Atkinson Hill Rowan made a proposal of marriage to her, which she ultimately declined. Charlotte died in the home of George Washing Barclay, a cousin of both families, with Atkinson Hill Rowan at her bedside.
The song "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" is one of many examples of the loss of home in Foster's work. Biographers believe that this common theme originated from the loss of Foster's childhood home, known as the "White Cottage", an estate his mother referred to as an Eden, in reference to the Garden of Eden. The family was financially supported by the family patriarch William Foster, who owned vast holdings, which were lost through bad business dealings that left the family destitute and unable to keep possession of the White Cottage; the family was forced to leave the estate when Stephen Foster was three years old. After years of financial instability and the sharing of memories of the White Cottage with Stephen by his parents and siblings, the impact of longing for a permanent home that was no longer available to him greatly influenced his writing.
Upon its release in 1853 by Firth, Pond & Company, "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night" grew quickly in popularity, selling thousands of copies. The song's popular and nostalgic theme of the loss of home resonated with the public and further resolved to stimulate strong feelings in support of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Famous African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass promoted the song, among other similar songs of the time period, in his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom as evoking a sentimental theme that promotes and popularizes the cause of abolishing slavery in the United States. Douglass commented, "They [My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!, etc.] are heart songs, and the finest feelings of human nature are expressed in them. [They] can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave", he stated, "in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish".
The song held popularity for over a decade and throughout the American Civil War. The song's reach throughout the United States and popularity has been attributed to soldiers of the war, who passed the tune from location to location during the war's tenure. Soldiers of the war, both Union and Confederate, visited Federal Hill by the thousands to see the landmark that lent visual inspiration for Foster's song both during the war[dubious ] and after. Following the war, Federal Hill continued to be frequented by tourists throughout the remainder of the 19th century.
After the American Civil War had ended and the institution of slavery was abolished, the song, "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!", which encouraged and inspired abolitionist views in the United States thereafter continued to be held in high esteem by the public. The typical reduction of the song's title from "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" to "My Old Kentucky Home" occurred after the turn of the century.
The song's first verse and chorus are recited annually at the Kentucky Derby. Colonel Matt Winn introduced the song as a derby tradition. As early as 1930, it was played to accompany the Post Parade; the University of Louisville Marching Band has played the song for all but a few years since 1936. In 1982, Churchill Downs honored Foster by establishing the Stephen Foster Handicap. The University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Murray State University, Eastern Kentucky University, and Western Kentucky University bands play the song at their schools' football and basketball games.
In 1928, "My Old Kentucky Home" was "selected and adopted" by the Kentucky state legislature as the state's official song. It has remained so, subject to one change that was made in 1986. In that year, a Japanese youth group visiting the Kentucky General Assembly sang the song to the legislators, using the original lyrics that included the word "darkies". Legislator Carl Hines was offended by this and subsequently introduced a resolution that would substitute the word "people" in place of "darkies" whenever the song was used by the House of Representatives. A similar resolution was introduced by Georgia Davis Powers in the Kentucky State Senate. The resolution was adopted by both chambers.
Today, the song "My Old Kentucky Home" remains an important composition due to its role in the evolution of American songwriting and is an influential song in American culture. According to popular-song analysts, the appeal of the theme of 'returning home' is one in which listeners of "My Old Kentucky Home" are able to personally relate within their own lives. Many revisions and updates of the song have occurred throughout the past century, which have further ingrained the song in American culture.
"My Old Kentucky Home" was recorded many times during the early era of cylinder recordings. The Cylinder Audio Archive at the University of California (Santa Barbara) Library contains 19 commercial recordings of the song (in addition to several home recordings). In most cases, even those of the commercial recordings, the Archive is unable to determine the precise dates (or even years) of either their recording or their release, with some cylinders being dated only to a forty-year range from the 1890s to the 1920s. The earliest recording of "My Old Kentucky Home" for which the Archive was able to determine a precise year of release is from 1898 and features an unidentified cornet duo. However, the song is known to have been recorded earlier than that (in February 1894) by the Standard Quartette, a vocal group that was appearing in a musical that featured the song (making their recording perhaps the earliest example of a cast recording). No copy of that cylinder is known to have survived. And although cylinder recordings were more popular during the 1800s than disc records, some of the latter were being sold, mostly by Berliner Gramophone. A version sung by A.C. Weaver was recorded in September 1894 and released with catalog number 175.
The popularity of "My Old Kentucky Home" as recording material continued into the 20th century, despite the fact that the song was then more than fifty years old. In the first two decades of the century, newly established Victor Records released thirteen versions of the song (plus five more recordings that included it as part of a medley). During that same period, Columbia Records issued a similar number, including one by Margaret Wilson (daughter of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson). One of the major vocal groups of the day, the Peerless Quartet, recorded it twice, as did internationally-known operatic soprano Alma Gluck. It was also recorded by various marching and concert bands, including three recordings by one of the most well-known, Sousa's Band, as well as three by the house concert band at Edison Records.
Although the frequency of its recording dropped off as the century progressed, "My Old Kentucky Home" continued to be used as material by some of the major popular singers of the day. Versions were recorded by Kate Smith,Bing Crosby, and Al Jolson. A version by operatic contralto Marian Anderson was released in Japan and Paul Robeson recorded his version for an English company while living in London in the late 1920s. The song continued to find expression in non-traditional forms, including a New Orleans jazz version by Louis Armstrong and a swing version by Gene Krupa. For a listing of some other recorded versions of the song, see External links.
In 2001, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America promoted a list of the 365 "Songs of the Century" that best displayed "historical significance of not only the song but also of the record and artist". "My Old Kentucky Home" appeared on that list (the only song written by Foster to do so), represented by the 1908 recording of operatic soprano Geraldine Farrar (Victor Records 88238).
By the time commercial music began to be recorded, the verse melody of "My Old Kentucky Home" had become so widely known that recording artists sometimes quoted it in material that was otherwise unrelated to Foster's song. Henry Burr's 1921 recording of "Kentucky Home" quotes the melody in an interlude midway through the record. And vaudeville singer Billy Murray's 1923 recording of "Happy and Go-Lucky in My Old Kentucky Home" adds the melody in the record's finale. An earlier recording by Murray, 1915's "We'll Have a Jubilee in My Old Kentucky Home", takes the further step of incorporating a portion of Foster's melody (but not his lyrics) into each chorus. And a few decades earlier than that, a young Charles Ives, while still a student at Yale University in the 1890s, used Foster's melody (both the verse and the chorus) as a strain in one of his marches. Ives often quoted from Foster and musicologist Clayton Henderson has detected material from "My Old Kentucky Home" in eight of his works.
In the mid-1960s, songwriter Randy Newman used the verse of "My Old Kentucky Home" (with modified lyrics) as the chorus to his "Turpentine and Dandelion Wine". Newman recorded this adaptation for his 12 Songs album (1970, Reprise RS 6373) under the title "Old Kentucky Home". However, the adaptation had been recorded earlier at least twice. The first was by the Beau Brummels, who recorded it for their Triangle album (1967, Warner Brothers WS 1692). The second was by the Alan Price Set, who included it as the B-side to their "Love Story" single (1968, Decca F 12808). Since Newman's recording, the adaptation was covered several times more. The only version that charted was by Johnny Cash, who released it as a single from his John R. Cash album (1975, Columbia KC 33370). The single reached No. 42 on Billboard's country-music chart. Note that the various cover versions generally use slightly different titles, some adding "My" to Newman's title, others omitting "Old". Also, some use Newman's original title of "Turpentine and Dandelion Wine" as a subtitle. A more complete listing of these cover versions can be found in External links.
The original title for the first draft of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind was "Tote The Weary Load", a lyric from "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" The lyric "a few more days for to tote the weary load" appears in the text of the novel as Scarlett O'Hara is returning to Tara.
Judy Garland sang "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" live on December 14, 1938, on the radio show, America Calling. She later covered it again on The All Time Flop Parade with Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. On April 29, 1953, Garland headlined a Kentucky Derby week appearance in Lexington, Kentucky named "The Bluegrass Festival" where she sang the song "My Old Kentucky Home", accompanied by a single violin.
In 1939, "My Old Kentucky Home" was featured in the film version of Gone With The Wind both instrumentally and with lyrics. In the movie, Prissy, played by Butterfly McQueen, sings the line, "a few more days for to tote the weary load".
In 1940, Bing Crosby sang "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" via radio broadcast with Leopold Stokowski conducting a symphony for the dedication of the Stephen Foster postage stamp release held in Bardstown, Kentucky at My Old Kentucky Home.
The song was covered in The Simpsons, Season 21, Episode 13, "The Color Yellow." Marge and Lisa read from the footnotes of a cookbook written by Mabel Simpson in which she describes the escape of a slave, Virgil, who is assisted by Eliza Simpson. Virgil and Eliza find safe harbor in a circus operated by Krusty the Clown, who hides them from slave patrollers by disguising them as circus acts. Krusty asks what talents Virgil possesses, to which he replies that he has music talent and then performs the song, "My Old Kentucky Home" while playing violin.
Johnny Depp, Lyle Lovett, David Amram and Warren Zevon covered the song "My Old Kentucky Home" at the tribute memorial of journalist Hunter Thompson in December 1996. One of Thompson's most notable pieces, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved", in addition to Thompson being a native of Louisville, Kentucky, inspired the performers to cover the song for his tribute. The performance was recreated 9 years later in 2005 at midnight after Thompson's ashes were blasted from a cannon.
The original Stephen Foster lyrics of the song, were:
Modern renditions (with Kentucky officially adopting this change in 1986) of the song change the word darkies to people.