Nothing screams sports Americana like the long-running horse race, The Kentucky Derby. This annual race is known for its 2km of thrill that, year after year, brings the best jockeys and the best horses and draws crowds of men and women wearing extravagant hats that sip on their mint juleps. This tradition of 147 years is held on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Kentucky Derby is the longest-running sporting event in U.S. history and one of the big three, the famous Triple Crown, consisting of the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes, and the beloved Kentucky Derby. As such it’s no surprise that the Kentucky Derby attracts millions of viewers and fans of thoroughbred racing year after year.
But just as the Kentucky Derby finished, a pressing topic that concerns social justice activists looms, and that is the one concerning the Kentucky Derby’s anthem. Why has the Kentucky Derby anthem, “My Old Kentucky Home,” become a topic of controversy in recent years? Let’s put that under the magnifying glass today.
Why is The Kentucky Derby So Popular?
Ever heard of “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” or “The Run for the Roses.”? That’s precisely what this thoroughbred race is. A classic tradition that year after year brings together the best of the best in that sport. It’s a prestigious tradition, without a doubt. The race features the world’s finest thoroughbred horses competing for the top prize and a chance to make history. Additionally, the Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the Triple Crown, a series of three races that also includes the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. In fact, winning the Triple Crown is a rare thing, and it is a highly coveted achievement in horse racing.
What Is The Kentucky Derby Anthem?
Each year, as the horses make their way onto the track for the Kentucky Derby, the crowd at Churchill Downs joins in singing the state’s official song, “My Old Kentucky Home.” The tradition of singing the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky” is one which dates back to the early 20th century and is part of the event’s pageantry and sense of showmanship.
The song, composed by Stephen Foster in 1853, evokes a sense of nostalgia and pride among Kentuckians and race attendees. The anthem went through a couple of changes in its lyrics starting in 1967 when a segment of the song was changed to not reference an ethnic slur towards black people and their lives during the times when slavery was pervasive in the Southern United States.
As it turns out, the long-lasting scars of America’s troubled past with slavery and its iconography resound and ruffle feathers when things like My Old Kentucky are sung. Raising questions about whether it is okay or not to adhere to that tradition considering the song and its lyrics past.
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Who Wrote My Old Kentucky Home?
Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” back in 1853. Foster was a prolific songwriter during the 19th century, composing over 200 songs that remain popular today, including “Oh! Susanna,”, “Hard Times Come Again No More”, “Camptown Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” Although Foster was not from Kentucky, his song has become synonymous with the state and its people.
Why Is My Old Kentucky Home Anthem Controversial?
The whole deal concerning the lyrics of My Old Kentucky Home is a matter of perception and how the song traces back to a time when slavery was still prevalent in the United States. Depending on who you ask, some might interpret the lyrics as suggestive of a time when human beings were treated as property. These interpretations have led to questions about whether My Old Kentucky Home is appropriate for modern audiences and if it should continue to be part of the Kentucky Derby tradition.
In recent years, African American activists had called to retire “My Old Kentucky Home” as the Derby anthem due to its perceived connections and connotations to times when slavery and racism were normalized. In 1967, a segment of the anthem was changed to stop mentioning an ethnic slur. And despite the change, the debate over “My Old Kentucky Home” continues to divide opinions and ruffle feathers.
There are two bands, those who say that the song should be retired entirely and others who maintain that it’s an essential part of the Kentucky Derby’s history and tradition. As American society grapples with issues of race and representation and reparations, the future of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the Derby anthem remains uncertain, but the song keeps its status as the anthem.
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