Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My Old Kentucky Home and Uncle Tom's Cabin?

OK, back to minstrelsy. Living in Kentucky for the past ten months or so has shown me that no sport takes precedence over Wildcats basketball here in the Commonwealth. I grew up in a Wildcats household (my father was a big fan-he preferred listening on the radio to watching on television) and I was even a fan myself for several years before I found my own team to follow and came to favor football over hoops. A Kentucky tradition that I always found touching is that on Senior Day when the senior members of the Wildcats team and their families get honored and sing My Old Kentucky Home together on the court. It is after all the state song and in my opinion (and many others' too) no state associates with its theme as does Kentucky.

Stephen Collins Foster probably wrote My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night in 1852 as it was published early in 1853. It is significant when he wrote the song because the same year Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stow was published in book form and became an immediate transatlantic bestseller. Social events seemingly had an impact on Stephen Foster and the subjects he covered in his songs. Written evidence proves that Uncle Tom's Cabin had an effect on Foster as it did so many other people.

Most people do not realize that the original title to My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night was Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night. Instead of "Then my old Kentucky Home good night," that ends each stanza, Foster's handwritten manuscripts of the lyrics shows he wrote, "Den poor Uncle Tom, good night." In a 1936 article -"The Slavery Background of Foster's My Old Kentucky Home" - printed in the Filson Club Historical Quarterly, Dr. Thomas D. Clark speculates that Foster probably changed the title and lyrics to make the song more marketable to Southern customers, who obviously despised Stowe's book. Minstrelsy was extremely popular thoroughout the United Stated during the 1850s, but especially so in the Southern states. Offending your best fans is not the way to become rich in the music business; then or now.

Dr. Clark states that, "Thus it matters little where My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night was written, but it is significant that it mirrors a most interesting background of the nation's history. It is signifcant, also, that the author's use of a title obscured his context sufficiently to cause Kentuckians, to whom Uncle Tom's Cabin was anathema, to take the song to their hearts and claim it as their very own." Interesting huh?

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