(Note: next installment of songs from 19th century America)
This song, the official state song of Kentucky, I always thought as one of the most popular songs by Stephen Foster. However, I am the only person in my household who was familiar with the song. I knew it even before going to the Stephen Foster Museum somewhere in Kentucky on a family vacation during my elementary years and bringing back home an eight-track of Foster’s most popular music (or was it a cassette? Anyway, it could have been either).
Something I notice today that I seemed to gloss over back in my elementary days: the song is written from the perspective of the darkies, yet I think it was a song sung popularly by white folk.
The song is also very specific: a specific home, a specific meadow, a specific cabin, singing the experience of one, though it would feel familiar to all.
But some of the references are less clear to me today. I am assuming that the “Hard Times” mentioned in the first verse could mean either that the plantation came upon hard times and had to sell the darkie slave, or else they merely sold the darkie and that created the hard times. The second verse is all about the time of parting, which from my historical understanding would have been when the slaves were sold and families parted.
Verse three talks about working hard, of bending back and bowing the head. It also talks about the field where the sugar canes grow. I am not familiar with sugar cane in Kentucky, though it was grown in places further south, also places where cotton was grown. I am assuming this alludes to the fact that states like Virginia and Kentucky became net exporters of slaves, growing them as a crop to provide to the other slave states that needed more slaves to work the cotton and cane fields.
Thus this is a sweet song of sorrow, that details a portion of the nation’s history. Some would vilify such a song for its romanticizing of such hardship. I think that would be an error ignoring the experience of the time, and the way the time viewed it. Also an error would be to take the Leonard Maltin “we are so much smarter than they were then” tone in our experiencing of these songs.
So here it is:
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky Home, ‘Tis summer, the darkies 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, All merry, all happy and bright;
By’n by Hard Times comes a knocking at the door, Then my old Kentucky Home, good night!
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 the 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 darkies have to part, Then my old Kentucky Home, good-night!
The head must bow and the back will have to bend, Wherever the darkey 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 toe the weary load, No matter ’twill never be light,
A few more days till we totter on the road, Then my old Kentucky Home, good-night!