Greetings all! We hereby intend to ignite a new tradition within River Cities: Kentucky History Friday. Each Friday, at circa 6:00 PM, this blog shall publish a short article regarding various topics of the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Permit me, however, to introduce myself prior thereto such that we are acquainted with each other; my name is Austin. I am a native Kentuckian, an aspiring ancient historian/classicist, the Founder of the History of Kentucky Group, a volunteer and constituent of the Teen Leadership Committee at the Kentucky Historical Society, and am a Past Master Councilor of River Cities! Quite proud am I to be afforded the opportunity to expatiate upon my utmost passions for historiography and history whilst proudly representing my home Chapter.
Our inaugural article today is entitled, A Brief Account of My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night and its Context. We will herein take to examining a short history of our state song, and its discrete racial legacy:
My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night is a minstrel song composed by Stephen Collins Foster, - who is also the author of multiple other famous works, i.e. Beautiful Dreamer, Hard Times Come Again No More, and De Camptown Races - which saw publication within the January of 1853 (Firth, Pond, & Co.)
Whilst a rather well-known piece, it is vital to note that Foster was a native Pennsylvanian; the song itself, many historians contend, is not about Kentucky but rather is an elaborate metaphor which refers to the institution of slavery. Indeed, the song's title when penned was Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night which is thereby referring to the historic abolition book Uncle Tom's Cabin. Furthermore it is quite evident, via the examination of the song's original lyrics, that it is a description of life upon a plantation whereupon slavery was practiced; one will take note of the third verse's "A few more days and the trouble all will end, in the field where sugar canes grow."
Why then would Foster change the title to My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night upon publication? Minstrelsy was a musical form which took prominence during the period in which Foster published said song; however it is notably most popular in the American South, thus it is probable that Foster desired to avoid the angering of many of his potential listeners (as slavery was at its height within such region, therefore the book Uncle Tom's Cabin was largely frowned upon.) Minstrelsy itself often constituted the traditional theatrical style of Black Face, wherein participating performers would paint their bodies with a black substance, and dress as well as act as stereotypical African Americans for the entertainment of primarily Caucasian audiences; hence to offend the ideologies and institutions of Southern peoples was to effectively mandate an unpopular foreordination for an artist's minstrel compositions.
Dr. Thomas D. Clark, our former Historian Laureate, remarked as thus: "Thus it matters little where 'My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night' was written, but it is significant that it mirrors a most interesting background of the nation's history. It is significant, also, that the author's use of a title obscured his context sufficiently to cause Kentuckians, to whom Uncle Tom's Cabin was an anathema, to take the song to their hearts and claim it as their own."
10th Edition sheet music, circa 1892
Antebellum Kentucky (1792-1860) was culturally amongst the Southern states, although geographically it was situated in a position constituting the far West (with its younger, neighboring constituents of Illinois and Indiana.) That peculiar institution was considerably ripe within the Commonwealth, wherein its practice was legally defended via the Constitution thereof. Indeed, as agriculture was fundamental economically in the frontier state (excepting the uncharacteristically cultured Lexington,) only those to whom slaves were sold and/or bequeathed could easily profit financially; Thomas Lincoln, the father of native Kentuckian Abraham Lincoln, relocated his family to the Indiana Territory in part due to his inability to profit as a laborer in Antebellum Kentuckian society. Hence Kentucky was a viable example by which to critique the institution of slavery; yet the piece, and its discrete morality, could achieve significant popularity amongst Southern populations due to its misinterpretation as a literal work of affection rather than political socialization.
The sentiment amongst Kentuckians which perpetuated the institution of slavery would endure during the subsequent American Civil War. Multiple photographs and representations have been included herein to expatiate thereupon and afford contextual comprehension. Lincoln of Kentucky – a work by the late Dr. Lowell Harrison – devotes much attention and detail to the atmosphere of Civil War and hence post-war (or Reconstruction) Kentuckian society.
Nevertheless My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night became the official state song of the Commonwealth of Kentucky upon the 19th of March, 1928. During 1986, the song was officially revised such as to replace lyrics which were thereby deemed politically incorrect regarding the African American race via House Resolution 159. Today, it known as My Old Kentucky Home and often only the first of three verses is sung.
The song is furthermore associated with Federal Hill Mansion within Bardstown, which was originally the estate of Judge John Rowan. It is said that Federal Hill was the inspiration for the musical piece, although such claim is widely discredited as fact via historians. Such myth, again, arises from the misinterpretation of the composition as a piece of affection rather than a political statement.
An instrumental version of the composition is found at the link following hereafter. The government of our Commonwealth, the Order of DeMolay, and the History of Kentucky do not endorse the original lyrics as they may pose a potential source of offense for listeners. For more information, go to www.historyofky.weebly.com or email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
We hope you have enjoyed this article and gained knowledge therefrom. Join us next week for another Kentucky History Friday! Next week, we will examine the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798; in light thereof, begin to ponder the question: what is the extent of state sovereignty? Email us your thoughts!
The piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DI_dBarT6UY
- Austin R. Justice, History of Kentucky Group.
" [the song stimulates] the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish." - Frederick Douglass, fervent abolitionist and former enslaved personage, speaking of My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night.
Stephen Collins Foster
Federal Hill Mansion, Bardstown, Kentucky
Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jewett, Proctor & Worthington Edition, 1852.
Louisville, Kentucky slave auction advertisement, 1850
The Ward Hall is an Antebellum plantation estate which exemplifies the wealth of slave-holding families.
Political cartoon depicting the Copperheads, or anti-war individuals (typically of the Democratic Party.) The Governor of Kentucky, James F. Robinson, publicly opposed the 1863 Proclamation of Emancipation, although it did not affect Kentuckian slaves.
*Note: any and all potentially offensive terms utilized herein are not endorsed by the Order of DeMolay or the History of Kentucky, and are provided solely for historical purposes.
Hi, I'm the website Admin. I look after the website as well as the chapter social media accounts.
Austin R. Justice
PMC of River Cities Chapter and Lincoln Forum & Colloquium Student Scholar.
Spencer M. Dayton