Churchill Downs Racetrack will continue its tradition of playing “My Old Kentucky Home” at the start of the Kentucky Derby despite criticism of the song about American slavery.
But the performance of the tune, which is also Kentucky’s state song, will be different Saturday than in prior years, Churchill Downs said.
“Normally, the moment would include fans singing along. This year, it will be instrumental only and preceded by a moment of silence and reflection,” Tonya Abeln, vice president of communications at the Churchill Downs Foundation, told NBC News in an email Saturday.
The Kentucky Derby, one of the most-watched sporting events in the U.S., with an average of 15 million television viewers each year, is taking place Saturday without fans in attendance after it was postponed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. (NBC televises the derby each year.)
The song will be played by bugler Steve Buttleman, instead of as usual by the University of Louisville marching band.
As the racetrack tweeted Friday, “the 100-year tradition of singing the state song of Kentucky has been thoughtfully & appropriately modified & will be preceded by a moment of silence and reflection.”
“My Old Kentucky Home” was written by composer Stephen Foster, a Pennsylvania native, in the 1850s.
Its original lyrics tell the first-person tale of an enslaved person being sold down the river from Kentucky to work hard in “the field where the sugar-canes grow.” Later versions tell the same story in third person.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the song as Foster wrote it “is actually the lament of an enslaved person who has been forcibly separated from his family and his painful longing to return to the cabin with his wife and children.”
”It presents a picture of slavery in Kentucky that is a beautiful, peaceful, positive,” historian Emily Bingham told NBC affiliate WAVE in Louisville. “But then it transports this person, who’s kind of singing all the way about Kentucky, into an environment where they are going to meet death without ever being reunited” with their family.
Later generations came to associate the song with plantation culture and blackface minstrel shows, Bingham said.
As its original anti-slavery meaning became less apparent over the years, criticism of its performance grew, the Smithsonian Magazine said.
The second line of the song that contained a racial slur that was repeated multiple times during the tune was changed after Carl Hines, the first African-American state legislator to have served Louisville’s 43th district, introduced a resolution that would substitute the slur for the word “people.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Friday that he called the president of Churchill Downs “and recommended that they play ‘My Old Kentucky Home.'”
“This is a song that goes back to the pre-Civil War period. It used to have some language in it that I think could have been viewed as racially insensitive. That was dropped out what 30 or 40 years ago,” said McConnell. “It’s a very much a part of our culture and tradition and absolutely should be played at the Kentucky Derby.”
Louisville poet and activist Hannah Drake asked Churchill Downs about the song in an open letter this week.
“Why is My Old Kentucky Home, a song of a slave being sold down South, still sung at the Kentucky Derby? … . Breonna Taylor and those in this city fighting for justice deserved more from this iconic institution,” she wrote in reference to the 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro police in her home on March 13.
Thousands of demonstrators calling for justice for Breonna Taylor are expected to gather near the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, replacing the traditional crowds of dapper dandies and women in fanciful hats who will be absent from the stands because of the pandemic.
Chloe Atkins contributed.