Get Rid of “My Old Kentucky Home”
I don’t really have anything against “My Old Kentucky Home,” which dates at least since 1921 as a Derby icon. But I have to admit I don’t completely get it, either. Other sporting events have “theme songs,” but they’re spared the compulsory sob-fest and phony sing-along camaraderie. At least when the Purdue Marching Band launches into “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the Indianapolis 500, the singing is left to Jim Nabors rather than 100,000 Hoosiers feeling compelled to croon about the general fabulousness of their new-mown hay and their moonlight on the Wabash. No such luck at the Derby.
No one knows the lyrics. I’d put the odds in Mine That Bird territory that you can’t find someone able to click off click off that final stanza, the one where the lady is ordered to weep no more. Plenty of state songs have tricky, hard-to-remember lyrics, but that’s why people generally aren’t asked to sing them in public, much less when there’s a good horse race to watch.
Not to mention that the lyrics don’t make a lot of sense. Of course, Stephen Foster’s antebellum weeper has been gutted in the last century and a half and the more, um, enthusiastic of its paternalistic reflections on the whole slavery thing, rightfully, updated. Yet even forgetting about that, let’s have a look at just what flimsy half-truths, artful fudging, false impressions, and out-and-out nonsense is proffered in the very first lines — the only ones anyone remembers, anyway:
|The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home||Pretty unlikely. Wonder why you spend so much time trying to figure which horses will handle an off track? Louisville ranks surprisingly low compared to other American cities in annual number of days with sunlight. According to 40-plus years worth of data from the National Weather Service, sunny skies are the rule only 56 percent of the time in Louisville, which places it below balmy Boston, clement Portland, Maine, or tropical Fargo, North Dakota. In fact, it’s barely sunnier in Louisville annually than it is in Green Bay (54 percent of days of sun a year) or even Toledo (52 percent). Compared to almost any city to the south, Louisville’s practically Rejkavik.|
|Tis summer, the people are gay||According to my calendar, summer doesn’t begin until the end of June. More important, you have to look pretty hard to find those “gay people” in Kentucky. It’s one of the most miserable states in the union, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, the most cited national measure of general good cheer. In 2011’s rankings, Kentucky wound up 49th in the happiness sweepstakes, bested only by sad old West Virginia as being the least happy state in the country. Compared to the top-ranking joyous folks in North Dakota — yes, North Dakota — and perennial chart toppers of Hawaii, the Bluegrass State is downright blue.|
|The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom||How many Kentuckians could give a hoot about how their cornfields are doing? According to the Kentucky Corn Council, only 1.5 percent of the nation’s yield comes from the state. It’s dwarfed by its northern neighbors Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Sure, you wouldn’t have Kentucky bourbon without those bushels. You also wouldn’t have Karo syrup, which is only marginally more saccharine-sweet than these maudlin sentiments.|
|While the birds make music all the day||The state bird, the cardinal (how unique!), certainly makes a lot of noise all day. The species is well known for squawking out its territory-defending call upon being mesmerized by its own reflection on a body of water. But “musical”? The National Geographic Complete Birds of North America characterizes the cardinal’s call as “metallic.” Not even Sgt. Carter would ever go so far as to call Jim Nabors “metallic.”|
I know there are plenty of people who get choked up when they hear “My Old Kentucky Home,” certainly as many as those who get a lump in their throat at the Belmont Stakes when they hear “New York, New York,” and realize that if they were at a Yankees game they wouldn’t be stuck in an hour-long line just to use the bathroom. Why do you want an anthem that reduces you to tears? According to legend, when Gary Stevens was descending the elevator to ride in his first Derby, Bill Shoemaker was behind him, and the Shoe put his hand on Stevens’s shoulder and said, “Kid, you’re about to get a tear in your eye.” As a bettor, I’m not sure I’m terribly happy imagining the guy riding my horse is struggling to see the course through the blur of saline-crudded partial vision. Besides, I’d rather save the tears for after the race, when I’m generally tearing up my tickets.
So maybe we should just scrap “My Old Kentucky Home.” The problem is that there aren’t many alternatives. The Belmont got rid of the charming and harmless Tin Pan Alley standard “Sidewalks of New York” in 1997 in order to replace it with the worst song Sinatra ever recorded, jettisoned that tune for the awful and verbose “Empire State of Mind” (nothing like an anthem written in a minor key to really get the crowd juiced before a horse race), than flip-flopped back to “New York, New York.”
At least the Belmont Stakes had a few songs to choose from. The American Songbook isn’t exactly brimming with Derby- or Kentucky-themed material. The most Derby-centric hit of the last one hundred years is Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses,” itself somewhat lyrically challenged. No offense to Fogelberg fans, but that line from the refrain — “the chance of a lifetime/in a lifetime of chance” — makes Lionel Richie’s “I had a dream, I had an awesome dream” sound practically Miltonic. Even the geography’s bizarre: “Born in the valley/And raised in the trees/Of Western Kentucky/On wobbly knees.” Western Kentucky, like Peducah? Aren’t most of the stud farms at the other end of the state? If the Derby is the fastest two minutes in sports, “Run for the Roses” must count among the longest four.
The Derby pops up in other tunes. There’s probably not a degenerate who doesn’t love the line in the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” — “well, you’re sitting back/in your rose pink Cadillac/making bets on Kentucky Derby day” — but to a lot of traditionalists the rest of the song may be a bit de trop, as Bob Baffert would say. My favorite Derby lyrical cameo occurs in Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top,” in a verse that pairs the time of the Derby winner and the purported excellence of a turkey dinner. For the young people out there, it bears quoting in full:
You’re the top!
You’re Mahatma Gandhi.
You’re the top!
You’re Napoleon brandy.
You’re the purple light
Of a summer night in Spain,
You’re the National Gallery
You’re Garbo’s salary,
You’re a turkey dinner,
You’re the time, of a Derby winner
I’m a toy balloon that’s fated soon to pop
But, if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!
Yet the most unlikely Derby cameo has to be Sonic Youth’s 1995 “Bull inthe Heather,” an off-hand tribute to the poetically named Howie Tesher-trained son of Ferdinand who ran thirteenth in the ’93 Derby and rarely won again. I’m all for bands picking through the DRF charts for inspiration; if we’re ever to see a successor to “My Old Kentucky Home,” there are worse starting points.
So quick — what rhymes with Mark Valeski?