Federal Hill, a restored antebellum plantation home in Bardstown, Kentucky, better known as the Old Kentucky Home, opened its doors to statewide marching band and throngs of visitors on 4 July 1923, after a three-year campaign for its purchase and renovation. It was Kentucky’s first historic home—and one of the first projects to capitalize on 20th-century white American fervor for car tourism and Old South nostalgia. Federal Hill quickly became the tourist center of the state.
Why this lodge? Because, according to the promoters of Federal Hill, it was here in 1853, in the family home of former United States senator John Rowan, that Stephen Foster, father of American music and cousin of Rowan, wrote “My Old Kentucky Home “. Shortly thereafter, the Kentucky General Assembly named the song the official state anthem.
Visitors to Federal Hill saw the “Foster Secretary,” a desk on which Cousin Stephen is said to have composed his classic rendition of a black man’s longing for the Kentucky home that “hard times” led him to leave, a place where “the sun shines brightly” and “the tenebrous ones are…all merry, all happy and bright”. They were told Foster’s song was inspired by his observation of the contentment of the enslaved people there – a narrative reinforced by the presence of a funky old black man sitting outside the house playing tunes of Foster on harmonica. He was introduced as the son of one of the Rowans’ loyal servants.
As Emily Bingham reveals in her brilliant book My Old Kentucky Home: The Amazing Life and Judgment of an Iconic American Songevery detail of this story was a lie.
Pittsburgh composer Stephen Foster never set foot in Bardstown or knew the Rowan family, and the “Foster Secretary” was likely purchased for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Bemis Allen, harmonica player, had no prior connection to Federal Hill before being hired to star as the “colored minstrel” there, as a 1930 feature in Kentucky Progress Magazine described it. Early tourists noticed that Federal Hill lacked the “little shack” where young people frolicked in Foster’s song, so conservatives built a shack-shaped gift shop and passed it off as former slave quarters. The real Rowan slaves had slept on the dirt floor of their slavers’ basements.
“The real Kentucky slave home,” Bingham writes, “was riddled with violence—rape, assault, deprivation of all kinds, disregard for family ties—and the constant threat of it all.” Her book is an extremely honest effort to correct our nation’s “continuing disconnect between history and fantasy” when it comes to race.
Stephen Foster, who died in 1864, was not responsible for the inauthenticity of the Old Kentucky Home in Bardstown. But his music was an early agent—and, after his death, a primary vehicle—not just of the “toxic illusion of contented servitude,” but of the entire cultural repertoire of dehumanizing stereotypes of black personality by which white Americans entertain and, in Bingham’s incisive phrase, “learned to feel good about racism.” The telling of this enduring cultural history and its “incalculable social and human damage” – a story in which the Federal Hill fantasy is but one episode – is Bingham’s stunning achievement.
Raised in a supportive Southern family, down-and-out and reaching his mid-twenties with a drinking problem and a dependent wife and child, Stephen Foster turned his talent to writing for the American entertainment outlet the most influential and lucrative before Hollywood: the minstrel show. There, white men in blackface performed slapstick skits, songs and routines in a fake “Negro dialect” that portrayed black people as “uncivilized, insane, emotional, crass, overly sexual, but also ‘naturally’ musical and athletes,” Bingham writes. Working for blackface impresario Christy’s EP, Foster wrote contented slave songs for Christy’s Minstrels, including “Oh, Boys, Carry Me’ Long,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night”.
But Foster also aspired to produce music suitable for the genteel white living room, so he revised “Poor Uncle Tom”, removing the dialect, adding the refrain “Weep no more, my lady” and renaming it “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night”. .” These changes allowed the song to become over time an icon of “generalized white American middle-class sentiment, a sentiment that almost entirely circumvented both the politics of slavery and actual ‘black sentiment'”, writes Bingham.
The author shows that real black sentiment was precisely what American popular culture was meant to suppress or falsify – from Christy’s Minstrels to carried away by the wind (which includes 11 Foster tunes) to the reverent ritual chant of “My Old Kentucky Home” at the start of every Kentucky Derby. After the Civil War, for nearly 100 years, black musicians and singers could only pursue their careers by performing music that “validated plantation fantasies” and “whitewashed.” [their own] historical nightmare. Many, out of necessity or “hope for progress”, joined in and with every sentimental note delivered the “deeply inauthentic message” white audiences wanted to hear: “that they too were nostalgic, not insulted, hurt, struggling and furious with the forces that thwart the racial uprising,” Bingham writes.
When, in 1914, black parents and the NAACP opposed a popular musical anthology in public schools, Forty Best Old Songs, seven of which contained overt racial slurs, they were pilloried in the national press as hypersensitive malcontents, defamers of the “precious musical heritage of our people as a whole”. And when, 55 years later, students at the black University of Louisville marched on the slogan ‘Blacks aren’t gay anymore’ to protest Churchill Downs’ insistence on displaying – and encouraging Derby customers to sing – Foster’s original lyrics, the backlash was much the same. . It wasn’t until some corporate sponsors of Derby broadcaster CBS began to back down in 1972 that track administrators quietly replaced ‘darkies’ with ‘people’.
The life of Foster’s song that Bingham traces is truly astonishing in its scope. He obsessed over pharmaceutical magnate JK Lilly in the 1930s; he traveled the world with the US Armed Forces in the 1940s; he westernized Japan with Colonel Sanders of KFC in the 1970s; and, in the 1980s, it sealed Toyota’s selection of Kentucky as the site of the largest American investment ever made by Japanese industry.
But Bingham reveals another, more personal echo to this American song: its incitement to her determination to “confront what is beneath” the culture that shaped her. The story of “My Old Kentucky Home,” she writes, is also her own, a story “of a privileged white Kentuckian descended from both sides of people who owned people,” and whose 20th-century, progressive ancestors in all other respects, " has never washed away the deep, dark well of white rage that persists even in educated, distinguished, liberal-minded people. This is the story of someone who grew up and s is torn singing this nostalgic song at the start of every Kentucky Derby – until it confronts what lay below.
Bravely, Emily Bingham writes the story of Foster’s song partly as an autobiography. But not his alone. It is also ours, the cultural autobiography of America, and Bingham challenges us to recognize it as such – as a heritage that we frankly must possess before we can defeat it.
The Dark Side of an American Song
The event: A talk by author Emily Bingham on My old house in Kentucky
Time: Wednesday, August 10, 7:30 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Public Library, 55 West Main St