My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song

Knopf. May 2022. 368p. ISBN 9780525520795. $30. MUSIC
Drawing from extensive research and personal experience, Bingham (Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham) explores the history of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” a pre–Civil War song about a Black man sold down the river, written by a white man and often performed by white men in blackface. Bingham unravels the false narratives that were created around Foster’s song in the 20th century, meant to indulge myths about plantation life, encourage visits from white tourists eager to see an idyllic South, and foster sentimentality for a past overflowing with injustices. She uses sheet music covers, photographs, and illustrations to demonstrate the contradictions between the actual treatment of Black people in the American South and the stories about slavery told by and for white people. Bingham asks readers to think critically about a song cherished by many and to consider the price of nostalgia; she concludes that one can love a song and still relinquish it as a symbol of hope or compassion.
VERDICT Bingham convincingly argues that listeners cannot disconnect “My Old Kentucky Home” from its fraught and dishonest history and that the only way forward is to stop performing it altogether. Readers familiar with the song will get the most out of this book, as will anyone with a deep interest in the intersections of music and history.
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