Raise your voice in song.
That it carries to the heavens, high notes above the clouds like so many birds in flight, low notes scraping the tips of the grass. Sing your happiness out loud and let your sadness be gently carried away to a better place. Raise your voice in song, even if, like in Emily Bingham’s new book “My Old Kentucky Home,” it brings someone else down.
Stephen Foster was in bad shape.
Sadly married for less than a year and fathering a child he suspected was not his, he struggled to do the right thing, by mid-1800s standards, and support to the needs of his family. Foster owed his brother several hundred dollars for rent on a room, the debt was piling up, and he was miserably unhappy. He had worked hard on the songs he was writing, but he was frustrated and embarrassed that the only interest anyone showed was in minstrel music. Minstrelsy, says Bingham, featured white people with blackened faces, portraying black people as “uncivilized, insane, emotional, coarse, overly sexual, but also ‘naturally’ musical and athletic”.
For a songwriter, she says, minstrel “smelled the worst”.
It was a breadwinner, but not the one Foster wanted. His marriage in tatters, his wife gone, he moved into what was essentially a closet, where he died of alcoholism.
By then, however, audiences at minstrel shows had come to love a song that Foster had “thought better about what he had done” and reworked. Gone is its offensive title and the fake “nigger” dialect. The song was called “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night”.
Still, it was racist, says Bingham, but Frederick Douglass called it “our national music”, and so it remained part of our musical heritage. Postwar black performers included it in their acts, just as they disliked the song.
“In the first decades of [last] century,” says Bingham, the song “became a newly beloved hymn…” Later, even Eleanor Roosevelt expressed appreciation for it. And it was sung at the Kentucky Derby that year, albeit with several significant alterations …
Take “My Old Kentucky Home” and it says on the cover that it’s the story of an “iconic American song.” But it’s so much more than that. This is a biography of racism through music.
In her introduction, author Emily Bingham recounts how, as a young girl, she suddenly realized that the song she liked was full of words she didn’t like. That kind of relativity runs through the book, piecing together the song’s history while explaining that its lyrics and meanings over the years were signs of different times. This does not mean that Bingham dismisses the problematic issue of the song itself; instead, she sticks to the national issues of post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights and modern times on the razor’s edge of forgiveness and outrage.
Musicologists will enjoy this book, as will historians who also love music. Surely, “My Old Kentucky Home” will spark some great conversations.
“My Old Kentucky Home: The Amazing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song” by Emily Bingham. circa 2022, Knopf $30.00 329 pages