KENTUCKY: “My Old Kentucky Home” by Stephen Foster
Today’s blog is a continuation from yesterday’s post about the history of Federal Hill, the plantation estate of the Rowan family that is now known worldwide as “My Old Kentucky Home.” Please read that article first as it sets the foundation for the Kentucky State song of the same name, written by famous American songwriter Stephen Collins Foster.
As I hinted in yesterday’s blog, there is an impossible to unravel mystery surrounding the precise connection of the song to Federal Hill. However, mysterious as the connection may be, Federal Hill IS indelibly linked to Foster and the song, and that link is cemented into the fabric of Kentucky history. Nothing will ever change that, I believe, but it is a fascinating story to explore nevertheless. So here we go!
The Rowans and The Fosters
Let me begin with the connection between these two families, which is itself a bit mysterious, insofar as pinpointing precise ancestry links. What is known for certain is that both families originated in Ireland, emigrating to America in the early decades of the 1700s and settling in Pennsylvania. Whether they were already connected in some way prior to emigrating is not readily known. Stephen Foster’s grandmother Ann Barclay (Foster) was a “cousin” to John Rowan, although how is unclear. Some sources simply say “cousin” while others preface as “second cousin.” Whatever the exact relationship, the families were clearly closely tied. James Foster (Ann Barclay’s husband and Stephen Foster’s grandfather) served in the American Revolution, as did Captain William Rowan, perhaps another source of the two establishing a relationship. Several existing letters dating to the period mention members of the various families in assorted ways, including visits after the Rowans relocated south to Kentucky in 1783.
One notable incident occurred when Stephen Foster was seven years old. In 1833, his mother took him and older sister Henrietta on a boat trip down the Ohio River to Cincinnati and then to Louisville, visiting family along the way. Their plan to continue on to the Rowan estate in Bardstown was stalled due to the outbreak of cholera noted in the previous blog post. Thankfully, as it probably turned out, due to the devastation and death which struck the occupants of Federal Hill not affecting the Fosters.
Another notable piece of evidence, in a roundabout sort of way, is the journey of Stephen’s sister Charlotte Foster in 1828. An educated and talented singer and dancer, Charlotte traveled by steamboat down the Ohio River first to Louisville, where she dwelt for a time with her cousins the Barclays. Later that same year, Charlotte traveled to Bardstown, dwelling at Federal Hill with her Rowan cousins, and quickly became the toast of the town. Amongst her many suitors was Atkinson Rowan, second son of Senator John Rowan and a wealthy attorney in his own right. He courted her enthusiastically, and may have proposed marriage, but alas, Charlotte noted that “I could not love him and would not do him or my self the injustices to make promises I was not inclined to perform.” Tragically, beautiful Charlotte would contact malaria on her journey home, passing away in 1829 with, incidentally, Atkinson Rowan at her bedside. Side Note: Atkinson Rowan perished in the cholera epidemic of 1833.
Returning to Stephen Foster, beyond the one incident when seven, documented notations of him visiting Federal Hill dating during his lifetime do not exist. (Read on as to why this may be so.) However, Rowan family stories passed on orally maintained that the future composer visited several times, including to write his famous song. Additionally, brother Morrison Foster indicated in 1898 that Stephen was “an occasional visitor” to Federal Hill. Indeed, it is more than plausible, as the home of Senator John Rowan was a center of social activity with visitors (family, friends, and political dignitaries) traveling great distances to be entertained at the lush, grand mansion. Yet, plausible as it may be for cousin Foster to have dwelt at Federal Hill, historians cannot be certain, so the mystery is likely to remain unsolved.
Stephen Collins Foster
As famous as he became, there is very little actually known about the life of Stephen Foster. He was born on July 4, 1826 in Pittsburgh, the youngest son of William Barclay and Eliza Foster. He was highly educated, attending private academies in the area, but was a self-taught musician. He was proficient with the clarinet, guitar, flute, and piano, as well as being a gifted composer. Attempts to earn a living as a professional songwriter (as opposed to performing) succeeded moderately well for a time, thanks to newly established copyright laws and printing technology. In fact, Foster is considered the first to make a living strictly as a songwriter. More on his songs in a moment, but to sum up the mystery surrounding Foster’s life, he was a deeply private individual who never sought the spotlight. He did not keep a journal and the majority of his letters were destroyed by brother Morrison Foster.
Stephen Foster is known as “the father of American music.” He wrote more than 200 songs, including dozens of classics to this day such as: Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races, Beautiful Dreamer, Swanee River, Old Black Joe, and of course My Old Kentucky Home. As noted above, Foster survived on the income earned from sales of his songs (which sold A LOT) but in an era when selling compositions was a one-time payment arrangement rather than by recording royalties, profit was far removed from the millions of dollars he would make today.
Stephen Foster died in 1864, a mere 37 years of age, as the result of a fall while sick with a fever. Even his death is a source of mystery, debated by historians as it occurred while alone in a hotel room in New York City. The possibility of suicide, while purely speculation, may have attributed to his brother’s decision to destroy Foster’s letters. Despite his unprecedented success as a songwriter, Foster died penniless, leaving behind a wife, Jane, and one daughter, Marion.
Links below give more details on the life of Stephen Foster.
“My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!”
The sentimental ballad was written by Stephen Foster and published in January 1853 by Firth, Pond, & Co. of New York. That much is certain, but when it comes to other details, we again enter the realm of mystery. Rather a theme with this blog, is it not?
In 1852, shortly after their marriage, the Fosters traveled to New Orleans via steamship. As far as is recorded, it is the only trip Foster made to the deep South despite his proclivity to write songs expressing the sentiments of antebellum America. Perhaps he passed through Kentucky on the way home, sojourning at Federal Hill as legend contends, but as previously noted, there is no concrete evidence of this. Whatever the case, “My Old Kentucky Home” was composed during this period.
While not an active abolitionist himself in a political sense, Foster felt great sympathy for the plight of slaves in the South. Based on notations in Foster’s notebook, he was inspired by the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In fact, the song was initially named “Poor Old Uncle Tom, Good-Night!” although these references were later removed when the song was renamed and the degree of inspiration from Stowe’s novel is debated. Imagery within the lyrics speak of a Southern home, but nothing specific ties to Federal Hill. Muddying the waters further, some biographers link the theme to the loss of Foster’s childhood home.
Perhaps the song was a mixture of inspirations, but whatever the impetus for Foster, “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!” was an immediate success amongst a wide variety of audiences. Abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, promoted the song as an anti-slavery anthem, clearly how Foster meant it.
“They [My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!, etc.] are heart songs, and the finest feelings of human nature are expressed in them. [They] can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.” ~Frederick Douglass, My Bondage, My Freedom (1855)
Douglass’s quote shines a light on the interesting dichotomy seen with songs such as this one. While speaking to the sorrows and negativity of the enslaved condition, the lyrics also highlight the joys of family, goodness of life, beauty of nature, and the hope of a day when “the trouble will all end.” Future controversy over the song was unintentionally aided by Foster selling the song as a “plantation melody” which became popular in minstrel shows and melodramas of the 19th century. These early shows depicted slavery as wrong, with the sympathetic dramatizations of enslaved people designed to encourage the anti-slavery movement. These depictions were much later twisted to demean through the tropes of blackface minstrelsy. Sadly, those who peer into the past through the lens of “everything is racist” are choosing to view the song as racist rather than the hopeful song Foster intended it to be.
For over one-hundred years the popularity of “My Old Kentucky Home” grew with the original lyrics largely unchanged and contested by few. After the turn of the century the title was shortened, with multiple recordings done by white and black artists, including Al Jolson performing in blackface, and black singer and Shakespearean actor Paul Robeson. Link to Robeson’s rendition on YouTube.
In 1904 —the song already an established Kentucky anthem— some 10,000 copies of sheet music were distributed at the St. Louis World’s Fair. In 1928, the Kentucky legislature adopted it as the official state song, keeping the original lyrics intact. During that decade, Colonel Matt Winn, President of Churchill Downs, introduced the song as a Kentucky Derby tradition. Originally played to accompany the post-race parade, since 1936 “My Old Kentucky Home” has been played by the University of Louisville Marching Band to open the famous horse race.
Over the decades, the lyrics have been altered and verses removed, for a variety of reasons. Such is the way of old songs, of course, although in this case the questionable lyrics were the main cause. Not until 1986, long after recordings by big stars like Judy Garland and Bing Crosby with the Foster lyrics intact, did the Kentucky legislature move to officially remove the word “darky” from the lyrics, it by then an acknowledged racial slur.
As for the ties to Federal Hill. . . As I see it, historians like to argue over such things and would probably do so even if Stephen Foster’s ghost appeared to confirm the connection. There may be no concrete evidence that Foster visited the Rowan plantation, but there is no concrete evidence he didn’t! Nor is there any evidence that the Rowans created a myth to capitalize on the family connection. Basically, there are so many mysteries surrounding the song and life of Stephen Foster, anything is possible. Rather like the chicken or the egg debate (correct answer is the chicken, by the way) however the connection came about, it is now the stuff of legends and integral to the historical fabric of Kentucky.
Of the numerous versions recorded, I can never pass by the legendary Kentucky bluegrass artist John Prine, who tragically passed away in 2021.
“My Old Kentucky Home” lyrics
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
‘Tis summer, the people are gay;
The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy and bright;
By ‘n’ by Hard Times comes a-knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.
Weep no more my lady
Oh! weep no more today!
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home,
For the Old Kentucky Home far away.
They hunt no more for the possum and the coon,
On meadow, the hill and the shore,
They sing no more by the glimmer of the moon,
On the bench by the old cabin door.
The day goes by like a shadow o’er the heart,
With sorrow, where all was delight,
The time has come when the people have to part,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.
The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the poor folks may go;
A few more days, and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow;
A few more days for to tote the weary load,
No matter, ’twill never be light;
A few more days till we totter on the road,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.