Despite pushback from the Left during the chaotic months of 2020 and 2021, the state song of Kentucky, “My Old Kentucky Home” was played before the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in 2021 and will be played again this year, 2023. The event, in making that decision, has refused to bow to its woke critics and cancel the song, which was first played at the race in 1921 and has been played every year since.
The controversy over the song began in 2020 and heated up in 2021, with woke critics demanding the derby nix the song. Newsweek reported on the controversy surrounding the song at the time, saying, “while some people consider the song to be a powerful condemnation of slavery,” others have a problem with “its original title and lyrics, and the contexts in which it has been performed, including at minstrel shows.”
Despite the criticism from the woke left, even Smithsonian Magazine described the song as “a condemnation of Kentucky’s enslavers who sold husbands away from their wives and mothers away from their children,” and as “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.”
But, as usual, the woke mob didn’t care about facts, history, or tradition. It cared about trying to force a beloved event to cancel a beloved aspect of itself, thus bending the knee before those who hate it. Fortunately, the Kentucky Derby refused and played the song despite the woke attacks.
Yet better, the Kentucky Derby has stuck by that decision and will play the song this year as well, as Tonya Abeln, Churchill Downs VP of Corporate Communications, said. In her words:
“We give careful considerations to all of our traditions year after year. 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.”
“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.”
Predictably, a local paper has been behind attacks on the song as well, framing it as time to “move on” from a beloved tradition for the benefit of those who many on the right would describe as overly sensitive. In a 2021 article, for example, it said:
Sollee — a Lexington native who now lives in Louisville — had recorded the song before, and knew of its problematic original lyrics about an enslaved man being sold down the river, but went ahead with the video. But as summer continued and the protests over Breonna Taylor continue to rock downtown Louisville, and as Sollee talked to protesters and activists, his outlook changed.
The Woodford ad “really did tug on people’s heartstrings about being together, which is testimony to the power of the melody and the harmonic content of the song,” Sollee said in a recent interview. “But sadly you just can’t separate the music from the words that have been sung for nearly 100 years during the time it’s been endorsed as the state song.”
After some “real and honest” conversations with Black peers and musical collaborators “about how that song does not represent them or create a sense of togetherness,” Sollee decided to take it out of his repertoire.
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