Daniel Suddeath

The almost mournful tone of the song is instantly recognizable for most of us who were born and raised in Kentucky.

As a child, I marveled at how an entire football stadium would be hushed as the song began, with that quietness interrupted only by UK fans humming or singing along to “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight!”

As I grew older I started to memorize the lyrics to Stephen Foster’s classic, but I didn’t really understand the story behind the song. I think that’s natural. We often hear songs and make up our own meanings for them.

I recall watching a television show a few years back that explored the many theories about the story of Phil Collins’ hit “In the Air Tonight.”

One popular belief was that Collins penned the song about a man who could have saved another man from drowning, but failed to do so. But according to a 2017 interview, Collins said the song was actually about going through a divorce. I don’t think most of us would have interpreted the song’s meaning, based on the lyrics and catchy drums transition.

To me, Foster’s song was about a person who was going through hard times, but found solace in thinking about his homestead in Kentucky. It seemed innocent, though I would learn years later that the song actually depicts the life of a slave sold from his Kentucky home. He’s not finding comfort in the ode, but rather lamenting the loss of a place that in theory he would likely never see again.

I’ve never been a horse racing fan for many reasons that I won’t bore you with, but with the Kentucky Derby taking place this weekend, we again find ourselves discussing whether or not it’s appropriate for Churchill Downs to allow “My Old Kentucky Home” to be played.

I don’t believe in our lifetimes we’ll completely see the end of the song’s connection to the Kentucky Derby, or the state in general, though the push for it to be eliminated grows stronger each year. I can definitely understand why Black people would take offense to a song that was essentially written by a White man during a time period when he could have made a difference in abolishing the evil sin of slavery instead of making some bucks off the suffering.

As humans, we don’t have all the answers and we should always desire to learn more. Once we learn the meaning of a song, and find out that it’s not the sweet anthem we thought it to be, we should adapt our views to reflect this knowledge.

While I will always feel a little emotional when I hear “My Old Kentucky Home” performed, my love for my home state isn’t dependent on a song written over 150 years ago. If I never hear it again, my memories of Kentucky, of my family there and of the simple lessons in life I learned during my childhood won’t be forgotten, or replaced.

But while we’re scrutinizing traditions that were birthed well before any of us were born, we should also analyze contemporary times.

According to Billboard.com, the top song in the land this week is “Rapstar” by Polo G. A quick Google search will provide you with the lyrics, but I think it’s safe to say that’s not exactly the type of song you’d play at your wedding.

Frankly, it depicts women as sexual objects not worthy of a relationship but useful for the pleasure of the rapper. Then there are the lyrics celebrating homicides and taking pills.

Hey, I’m 39, and I get it. My generation pretty much brought rap music to the mainstream. One of my friends and I often joke about some of the lyrics in the songs that were popular during our day, and how ridiculous and even obscene many were.

But the point is, people have the right to be angry over “My Old Kentucky Home” just like misogynistic lyrics in contemporary music should be questioned. Too often we pick and choose what angers us without much consistency.

We protest police shootings, as cops who cross the line should be held accountable, but we’ve seemed to become numb to the daily homicides that are committed across the country.

Though hardly any of us descend from natives of this country, we’ve gone to great lengths to keep other immigrants from being able to live here legally.

We know we’re destroying the earth with our reliance on coal and oil, but we haven’t made significant progress in ending those relationships.

We give cats and dogs cute names and call them family and then eat pigs, cows and chickens as if they have no understanding of suffering or pain.

We’ve spent billions of dollars on jails and public safety, but far less on treating drug addiction, which is a driving force in so many of our problems.

As we wade through these historic times, hopefully we can keep some perspective. Many of the issues we spend so much time debating honestly affect us the least.

Removing “My Old Kentucky Home” from the Kentucky Derby would be a nod of acknowledgement that the song is viewed as disrespectful by many, and it’s an action that should be given more consideration.

We should also discourage our children, or refrain ourselves, from celebrating violence, womanizing and drug-dealing in contemporary music.

We can, and should, do both.

Daniel Suddeath is the senior reporter at the News and Tribune and the editor of Southern Indiana Business magazine. Reach him at 812-206-2152, or by email at daniel.suddeath@newsandtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @DsuddeathNT.

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