Controversy continues as ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ tradition rolls on at Derby

The song “My Old Kentucky Home” has been known to drive some to sentimental tears and others to vocal protest.
Published: Apr. 28, 2023 at 4:28 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 28, 2023 at 4:29 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - From the moment the band strikes up the first hymn-like notes, the song “My Old Kentucky Home” has been known to drive some to sentimental tears and others to vocal protest.

“We give careful considerations to all of our traditions year after year,” Tonya Abeln, Churchill Downs VP of Corporate Communications said. “And this one in particular we’ve engaged in really meaningful conversations with the community and with our fans. And with that said, it’s the state song of Kentucky and we’ll be singing it before this year’s Kentucky Derby.”

Abeln said it was not a difficult decision.

“It is the state song of Kentucky. To our knowledge there isn’t any larger discussion about that changing. If that were to happen, we’d certainly respond to that,” she said.

Meanwhile, criticism of the public performance continues.

“There is clearly a growing discomfort,” Louisville author Emily Bingham said. “I mean this song has been protested since, for over a hundred years in various ways, forms and settings.”

Published to strong reviews in 2022, Bingham’s book “My Old Kentucky Home – The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song,” has sold thousands of copies.

Bingham’s research revealed how exploitation of the song generations ago turned it into a romanticized tribute to times of slavery.

“The quite rapid response is that, that’s not a song people are comfortable singing in a celebratory manner,” Bingham said.

“It’s definitely not a celebratory anthem we’ve performed at the Kentucky Derby,” Abeln said. “It’s never intended to be. It’s a very solemn song, a moment of self-reflection and introspection.”

A new video of Louisville poet and activist Hannah Drake portrays the song as antiquated and divisive. In an excerpt from her poem, “Home,” Drake said, “Perhaps now is a time for us to pause. There is nothing wrong with tradition. But there are some things that are old timey and outdated. The danger is in remaining the same. The danger is in being afraid of improvement, in not meeting this moment that life has given us. The danger is in growing bored with fighting for change. The danger is in being ambivalent…”

The performance, produced by the non-profit Kentucky to The World, reflects a point of view that the iconic state song has outlived its day.

“I think in our view it is iconic of a previous long-ago generation that was very painful and hurtful to people,” Kentucky to the World consultant David Thurmond said.

The ongoing argument over My Old Kentucky Home comes at a time when horseracing is having difficulty reaching a younger audience. But Churchill Downs is not worried. Abelin said polling indicates the song’s place in the Derby is secure.

“So, the polling we’ve done in the past included a national audience, some fans, some casual fans, a very wide demographic of people,” Abeln said. “There’s nothing that we saw that indicates a younger audience felt more strongly about it than an older audience.”