“We Will Sing One Song: Singing My Old Kentucky Home at the Derby”
It’s been a long day. The first race was run at 10:30 in the morning; now we’re getting ready for the twelfth race at nearly 6:30. But this one is the one we’re here for – the main event, the Kentucky Derby.
We’ve had a few winners, but many more who didn’t cash a ticket. We’ve met many people from all over the world, making small talk as we make our wagers or stand in line for a restroom. We’ve taken pictures of the famous Twin Spires and watched smiling celebrities stroll down the red carpet to the flash of cameras. Now we’re watching some partied out infielders throwing in the towel, stumbling their way through the tunnel, heading towards the exits. They weren’t here to see the race anyway.
Anticipation builds as the bugler, Steve Buttleman, steps onto the pagoda behind the Derby Winner’s Circle. The robotic television camera from NBC angles around, stopping just inches from Steve’s face. Millions on television are watching, but Steve is a pro and the opening notes of “The Call To The Post” are melodic and sure; the crowd roars as they see the line of Thoroughbreds, each accompanied by a lead pony, step onto the sandy loam racetrack. Immortality for each of these three-year-old Thoroughbreds is on the line. But for us in the crowd, we know we are about to share in something time honored, sacred and personal.
The University of Louisville Marching Band, in their snappy red, white and black uniforms, plays the soft opening of a song that has been played at every Kentucky Derby since at least 1921 – the storied and enduring, “My Old Kentucky Home”. It’s a song that reminds Kentuckians of the sentimentality of days long past, of traditions upheld, and the connections we have to each other. This our Commonwealth. This is our race. And this is our song.
But the song is so much more than that. Written around 1852 by composer Stephen Foster, he wrote of a past that wasn’t just sentimental romanticism, for in these verses include the reality and the legality of human bondage. The three verses (only the first is sung at the Derby) tell a tale of an enslaved person who is saying good-bye to his Kentucky home after being sold and sent to the Deep South. Away from a spouse? Away from children? Certainly away from the known, even if the known was lived within the confines of enslavement. And sold to what? Foster writes of impending doom with “A few more days for to tote the weary load, No matter 'twill never be light.” The song ends with the finality of never seeing his or her home again, prompting abolitionist Frederick Douglass to write that the song “awakens sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow and flourish.” What the song was to Stephen Foster, and certainly to Frederick Douglass, is very different to the thousands singing under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.
It is not clear when the tradition of singing the song before the race took root. Like many Derby traditions, the early 1920’s saw the origins of many of the customs we uphold today. The Louisville Courier Journal reported in 1921 that the song was played, probably after the race, and by 1930, was played as the horses left the paddock and headed towards the track.
Typically, the honor of performing the song is given to the University of Louisville Marching Band, playing in a grassy area next to the Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle as the crowd sways and sings along. When the last stanza begins with “Weep No More My Lady…” a noticeable crescendo engulfs the racetrack and then, it seems that for a moment, all 160,000 or so people in the crowd – from the well-heeled in the posh clubhouse to the mass of humanity in the infield – are all Kentuckians, gathered on the first Saturday in May to celebrate one of Kentucky’s great historical, cultural and economic contributions – it’s horses.