History of ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ examines how Black performers had to act out caricatures of plantation life
After Reconstruction, minstrel songs were one of the few paying options for talented Black singers
Every year at the Kentucky Derby, tens of thousands join together to sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” a minstrel song from 1853 by Stephen Foster whose original lyrics portrayed a “happy and bright” view of plantation life. This excerpt from a new book about the history of the song looks at how Black stage performers in the 1890s had to cater to white mythology about slavery.
The “Negro minstrel” Tom Fletcher (1873-1954) grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, with a view across the river to Kentucky. His father shoveled coal for steam-powered boats, and his mother cooked for the family of a local judge. As a treat, his mother’s employers took young Fletcher with them to see a touring “Tom Show.” A few performers with bit parts looked like him, and Fletcher decided then that he too would be “a showman.” He learned to sing “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Oh! Susanna,” practiced dance steps, and volunteered to hand out flyers whenever a minstrel show came through town. His father idolized Sam Lucas, a singer, composer, and Black actor who became the first person of his race to play Uncle Tom onstage. At fifteen Tom left Portsmouth to join Howard’s Novelty Colored Minstrels as a drummer, blacking up for nightly shows with ten or twelve fellow players in small Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana towns. He recalled suffering from cold and the shadow of threat. The local people were “very tough on us.” Black residents of these areas “knew their place,” and the troupe regularly passed road signs directed at people of his complexion warning, “Read and Run.” The entertainers were permitted entry, but audiences, who paid to see the shows (Foster songs were staples), taunted them with slurs. It was the price to pay to send his mother $5 a week.
Tom Fletcher wanted safer, better-paying work and more creative license, but with the exception of the considerably more respectable Hyers Sisters, the traveling minstrel acts of the 1880s demanded the same degrading role — ten or twelve poorly paid Black men under a white manager playing and singing “Dixie.” The range of artistic expression was so narrow, Fletcher later remembered, it could come down to the size and shape of a minstrel’s exaggerated makeup mouth. It therefore seemed like a step forward when the Hyers Sisters’ Black stage manager, Billy McClain, envisioned a big entertainment that would permit dozens of singers, dancers, and musicians to showcase their abilities.
Billy McClain’s landmark musical productions, The South Before the War (1892) and Black America (1895), advertised themselves as grander reflections of Black people than any entertainment in the United States to date. Born in Indianapolis in 1866, Billy performed in bands and minstrel acts as a teen. With a “fertile brain and boundless energy,” McClain spread his talents across minstrel comedy, acting, dancing, boxing, songwriting, and playwriting. He had gall, too. In 1880s or 1890s Kansas City, police took him into custody “for having too much jewelry for a colored man,” until he proved that the $7,000 worth of diamonds, “37 trunks, 13 hat boxes, 24 rugs, 14 brass instruments, 3 typewriters, 9 bird cages, 7 dogs” were rightfully his. McClain and his singer-actress wife, Cordelia, were Black theater royalty.
In 1892, McClain pitched an idea for a traveling show to a Louisville political boss who operated a string of cheap burlesque and vaudeville venues across the Ohio valley. Why pay other shows to fill his theaters when, with Billy’s help, John Whallen could produce the entertainment and pay himself? Lavish sets would provide a backdrop for life in antebellum times, a “picturesque spectacle” mixing plantation minstrel fare with the latest songs and dances. “Boss Whallen” ran Louisville’s Democratic Party out of his Buckingham Theater, where scantily clad women amused working-class men. The Whallen machine unashamedly suppressed Black Republican votes, but McClain would have to overlook politics to access Whallen’s capital. Whallen knew the fantasy of “old plantation life is always enjoyable” to white audiences, and nostalgia made “My Old Kentucky Home” a reliable favorite. The Buckingham Theater entered a “realistic” slave cabin covered in picturesque vines in the Louisville Commercial Club’s 1888 parade of industry and commerce. The float contained a living, smiling Black man, waving from the window and met with cheers.
With The South Before the War, Whallen gave McClain a unique opportunity. Black people had almost no access to leadership roles in show business. Billy hired almost a hundred Black performers. The call went out from the Buckingham: “Clever Colored Talent Wanted Quick.” “Ladies and Gents of experience, refinement, and culture in Cake Walking, Shouting, Singing, Plantation Melodies, Quadrilles, Wing, Reel and Buck Dancing” were invited to apply. “Also all Sports of the Ancient and Modern Africans, Colored Orchestra, etc. Telegraph at once.” The ad did not mention that to cater to whites’ fascination with slavery days, these experienced dancers and singers would be required to pick real cotton in the ersatz field that served as the show’s visual anchor. Indeed, the scripted content of The South Before the War was as racially demeaning as any minstrel show, indicating how painfully limited McClain’s creative control truly was. One scene that passed for slapstick called for a steamboat named the Robert E. Lee to dock at a levee where resting stevedores were pricked in the feet with needles or prodded with hot irons. “Can you smell him cooking?” one character asked.
Such was the context for the “pickaninny chorus” performance of “My Old Kentucky Home” in “Under a Southern Sky,” a skit within the 1892 show. Many years after escaping bondage in Kentucky, Uncle Eph returns to his wife and children, frozen in place on the plantation where he left them before the Civil War. Eph collapses after the son of his enslaver attacks him for abandoning “old master” on his deathbed. The Black children sing him out of this world and into the next with “My Old Kentucky Home.” The star roles — Eph and his wife, Chloe — went to a pair of white blackface veterans. But the national entertainment paper, the New York Clipper, confirmed that “genuine colored men and women” filled all other parts and excelled in the musical and dance numbers.
The South Before the War toured as far south as New Orleans and as far west as Chicago, giving steady work to the McClains and the “2 Pickaninny Bands, Grand Colored Chorus of 50 Voices, 40 Buck Dancers, 4 Quartettes, 30 Jubilee Shouters” that rounded out the company. In Washington, D.C., The South Before the War was sold out, and one newspaper noted the audience was “equally divided between whites and blacks.” The white press praised the show for its superior “antics of niggerdom.” Objectionable as the plot points and white commentaries were, Black theatergoers came to witness the artistry onstage, expressions of resistance (or at least survival) in a society where Black opportunities were so frequently crushed. McClain’s success was a triumph. As lynching spread unchecked, he treated the troupe with dignity and embodied the possibility of promotion in the business. Though he answered to white men, Billy had proved he could make a hit, and Boss Whallen awarded him a medal “for successful stage management.”
McClain’s next project aimed for a more uplifting effect. In 1895, McClain persuaded Nate Salsbury, producer of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, to let him use its Brooklyn location and repurpose its log cabins as slave dwellings for a new extravaganza. Billed as the music director, McClain probably created, wrote, and managed Black America, by far the largest all-Black show to date, with a cast of five hundred. That summer, it ran twice a day in Ambrose Park, capacity seven thousand. It went on tour with a leaner troupe, occupying large outdoor and indoor venues in the Northeast, and closed at Madison Square Garden. Summer was the slow season for regular minstrel and vaudeville shows, so McClain had his pick of Black talent. He selected his wife, Cordelia, as the featured soloist for “My Old Kentucky Home.”
In the 1890s, respected social scientists theorized that Black Americans, having failed to adapt to freedom, were likely to die out. The “Black disappearance hypothesis” put the onus on the race for allegedly innate pathologies; W. E. B. Du Bois and a generation of Black leaders ran themselves ragged refuting white supremacist ideologies based on biased data. Black America, an Epcot-like edutainment plugged as an “EXHIBITION OF NEGRO LIFE AND CHARACTER,” was McClain’s effort to assert that Black America and Black Americans were not going away. The show’s finale aimed to clinch the argument that Blacks’ evolution to full citizenship was real: an all-Black detachment from the U.S. Ninth Cavalry executed precise drills to an all-Black marching band. This was the age of Darwin, so the show presented the musical race rising to such orderliness from the primitive Congolese jungle to the cotton field, showcasing the “phenomenal melody of his voice.” Prior to curtain time, twenty-five-cent ticket holders wandered the grounds, also the performers’ living quarters. They could see an acre of real cotton and watch it ginned and pressed into bales. They peeked in on supposedly natural scenes of Black people at leisure, playing cards or courting. “These are not actors,” declared one newspaper notice.
Before opening day, the cast paraded down Fifth Avenue. Most went on foot, but Cordelia McClain, as a prima donna, processed by “open carriage.” Twice a day during the run, she appeared in formal dress singing “My Old Kentucky Home” in European concert style, backed by a “Monster Chorus” of harmonizing “Quartettes.” The song was presented as refined — like “Madame Cordelia” herself. Just a handful of Black women had appeared on American stages, and Foster’s melody, an ornament in the parlors of so many white homes, was a means to illustrate a Black woman’s respectability. Cordelia sang the song straight, but how she handled the lyrics is not known. Did Madame McClain stick to the first verse with its vaguely interrupted plantation myth, “ ‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay,” followed by “Hard Times”? Or did Cordelia McClain sing it through — with its indictment of the slave trade? Did she cry? The dignified mood did not last; in the next number, “Watermelon Smiling on the Vine,” a burro led by an aged “uncle” rolled up with a cartload of melons. A “mad scramble” ensued, with dozens of performers cracking open and “uninhibitedly” devouring the bright red fruit.
Ricocheting from racist burlesque to liberation, Black America concluded by dropping twenty-foot-high banners of Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frederick Douglass from above. McClain insisted on including the leading “lion” of his race, who had died early that year. Black Americans were on American soil to stay. White producers got to see “colored talent” by the hundreds, and many participants’ show business careers leaped forward as a result. Still, they were forced to live in “slave cabins” on a reconstructed “plantation,” pick fake cotton, and remain “in character” as ticket holders wandered through their quarters. The McClains were native northerners, professionals like many of their fellow cast members in Black America, though Salsbury’s promotional materials pretended that “all these negroes came from the South” and were not “show people” but “genuine.” In exchange for the hope of progress, the performers validated plantation fantasies that whitewashed Black Americans’ historical nightmare. White America has demanded similar compromises ever since.
The cumulative effect could be souring. Black America drew good crowds, but supporting what amounted to an entire town proved too costly, and the planned European tour never materialized. McClain grew bitter as white producers and venue owners siphoned profits off Black backs. In a dispatch from California, where an 1899 revival of The South Before the War was doing good business, he reported that “My Old Kentucky Home” never failed to make “the most stupid person exert themselves by way of applause.” It is as authentic an opinion as McClain ever committed to paper.
During a time that spanned the early hopefulness of Reconstruction to a period historians characterize as “the nadir of American race relations,” perhaps 200,000 people saw Black America. Over that same span of time whole professions and institutions closed to Black people. Lynching reached gruesome heights. While Billy and Cordelia found a measure of success in the 1890s, white mobs killed thirteen hundred Black people with impunity, and hundreds, perhaps thousands more were executed after rushed trials with all-white juries and no constitutional protections. By the turn of the century, the McClains had decamped for Australia. They lived and performed overseas for much of the next two decades. McClain wrote to Indianapolis’s Black newspaper, The Freeman, that he would return from self-imposed exile in France only when his people could somehow stand up to the theatrical establishment that humiliated and shut them out. With white-owned theaters refusing to book Black-produced shows, it was impossible to sing their own songs and tell their own stories. The “Negro must wake up and march on,” he urged. Just how one did this in the face of violence-backed systemic racism was unclear.
The first generation of professional Black musicians and actors who rose through Negro minstrelsy and Billy McClain’s “cavalcades” regularly performed “My Old Kentucky Home.” Some joined segregated guilds like the Musician’s Union and made it into the middle class. Top stars (McClain with his trunks full of fashionable outfits or Sam Lucas with his diamonds) flaunted their wealth, proving success was possible, but only by perpetuating to some degree disparaging racial caricatures. Cordelia McClain’s operatic presentation of “My Old Kentucky Home” tried to wrap the minstrel classic in dignified Black femininity, but overall, sung by “genuine” Black performers, the message remained one of Old South nostalgia. Black artists were told to be grateful for work where they could get it. All the same, they were committed to delivering transcendent music and dancing. With only a sliver of Black Americans permitted to work outside sharecropping, domestic service, and the lowest-paid manual labor, the price of the minstrel mask was worth paying for a shot at fame and the opportunity to practice one’s art.
Excerpted from MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song by Emily Bingham © 2022 by Emily Bingham Published by arrangement with Knopf, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.