2 Derby-Time Books To Read: ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ Origins, An Equestrian’s Memoir

Derby Festival organizers say it’s “back in full swing.” But, as some institutions claim we’re returning to normalcy, it has to be asked: in whose view? “The most exciting two minutes” and its attendant weeks-long calendar hasn’t always been made up of what we now feel are traditions. Upcoming author appearances include two for books that have some relation to the Derby and horses. But they also shed light on challenges to the perceptions of what’s normal — and how it might be maintained, and sometimes shouldn’t be.

In the earliest part of Emily Bingham’s “My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song” (Knopf; 352 pgs., $30), the author displays clear passion to convey her keynote — the “inauthentic authenticity” of the song’s emotion-led view of plantation life, with the enslaved thrust into an unwanted role. That shot across the bow gets backed up squarely with a level of research that seems unprecedented. The author’s investigative determination leads to a conclusion that could challenge the place of the song in society and hearts.

Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” as a means to pay his bills when minstrel shows were popular. 1853 was also a time of cultural impact from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” As drama in song about a slave’s fate, with sentimentality forced in, Foster’s song entered the market at just the right time.

It has a fine melody, and it aspires to sentimental power — but over generations, it’s been considered to be a song to salve racial divisions. But those who subscribe to that power are almost entirely white — and during the bizarre lucky turn in the song’s popularity, many have exploited the skewed interpretation for cold hard cash. The author captures it all, scrupulous and more committed than any passel of Wikipedia editors. What’s revealed is the many ways in which this tune was exploited to add some surface appearance of tastefulness to some dubious music programming; to promote tourism; to enhance a particularly prominent property sale (Federal Hill, now a state park — but definitely not a location of Stephen Foster songwriting).

And of course, there’s the Kentucky Derby. An ingenious track president brought in the song one year, and soon the throngs believed it had always been there. Additional commercially convenient bull helped it to contribute to a remarkable cultural shift that “ultimately presented Kentucky (to its own citizens as well as to tourists) as a fundamentally Southern place where slavery (if unfortunate) was benevolent suggests how irresistible an idealized Old South was to America’s white majority.”

The viewpoints of Black Kentuckians (and others) toward the popularization of this sentimental view of slave life? Almost always ignored, decade after decade. Talented people rewrote the song, put it into a more realistic or hopeful context in theater, poetry, all manner of media. Just about all that got traction was a paltry word substitution.

The author concludes with a provocative appeal that she offers as Kentuckian who has enjoyed Derby hats and shed tears to the song: “I recognize that relinquishing ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ leaving its future fate to Black Americans, will not erase racial inequity. Letting go of a song I have loved, jettisoning it in public and private, cannot ameliorate the past. But giving up something we love can be a sign of love.”

Emily Bingham will be in conversation with Kentucky Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson at the Louisville Free Public Library’s main branch (301 York St.) Tuesday, May 10 at 7 p.m. Register at the Events page at www.lfpl.org. 

Despite its title, Courtney Maum’s “The Year of the Horses” (Tin House; 260 pgs., $27.95) does not meet the expectations of a typical “a horse book.” It’s a memoir of the pivotal time in this novelist’s life when rediscovery of riding became key to recovery from debilitating depression. Part of the process — and it’s not all process, as the generously transparent and willingly vulnerable narrative reveals — leads to rewards both hoped-for and unexpected.

Maum’s childhood riding and jumping brings to mind Rosebud of “Citizen Kane” — an innocent emblem of a carefree life, untimely ripped away. Fulfillment built on a foundation of a united family capped her privileged early years in Greenwich, Connecticut.

What followed was a path in which decreasing trappings of entitlement didn’t matter as much as either difficult and neglectful circumstances, along with a growing personal restlessness. By her mid-30s, Maum suffers from ideation of self-harm and needs to heal wounds of the past. She can’t summon the capability to meet demands of a creative career and parenthood. But fortune smiles, with coincidences that get her into agreeing to a single riding lesson, despite her doubts of where it might lead.

A glint of light shines through immediately: “For the first time in months on end, my mind wasn’t racing. I didn’t want to look at my phone to confirm that other people appeared to be having more success/fun/sex than I was.”  

But after this a-ha comes tragedy that threatens to take away the possibility of healing. As she bears up through its aftermath, she must also be true to her core spirit: “I needed one area of my life to be a safe place free from the pressures and the market forces that beleaguered, sometimes — and fueled at others — my creative life.” Not one for half-measures, she takes up polo — a sport characterized as “[v]iolent, excessive, expensive, elitist, [and] notoriously hostile to ’the second sex.’” Maum works her way through adversities (logistical, chauvinist) to become an accepted and healthy player, while continuing small to mend or let go of old injuries.

The confessional narrative here is frequently supplemented by showing how being in the barn, ring, etc., helped Maum, and how she learned how programs such as the American Hippotherapy Association — to realize the potential of a special bond between women and horses.

Courtney Maum will be in conversation with author Erin Chandler at Carmichael’s (2720 Frankfort Ave.) May 11 at 7 p.m. Details at carmichaelsbookstore.com.

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