Song of the South (Home Hurts)

May 4, 2011 at 5:00 am

I’m standing my ground this year.

The bright green tie I bought for Derby last year was vetoed by my lady. But that ugly, green S.O.B. is making it onto my neck in this year’s ensemble — as god as my witness, it is. I like getting gussied up now and then just to prove I still can, and I admit to looking pretty sharp in a suit. I’ll wear one Friday to the Oaks and, barring any caviar stains, again on Saturday when spillage from an annual beer shot-gunning competition will be addressed by the referees (who have been paid in advance) as needed. All of this is to say that I’m a Louisville boy, and I ain’t scared of Derby. Like most of you, assembling a personal “Life in Photos: The Derby” montage from diapered toddler staring vacantly at an outdoor black and white television, through the awkward brass-buttoned blazer years, and into adult oblivion would not be difficult. But after all this time, I still find myself asking, “What are we celebrating again?”

Is it horsies? From the broadest perspective (Raised Relief’s preferred vantage point, as you’ve no doubt noticed), the short answer is: no. Horses are about as important to the overriding cultural significance of the Kentucky Derby as pasties and a g-string on a drag queen are to Mardi Gras. Yes, horses are majestic creatures, and we have some handy. Yes, the equestrian industry, as the Chamber of Commerce will be happy to tell you, is the third most significant generator of economic growth in the commonwealth right behind tobacco and KFC Double Down “sandwiches,” and followed closely by meth. But neither the graceful form nor the financial heft of the horse accounts for the global appeal of Derby.

Is it about celebrity? About making sure everyone else in the world knows there is a place called Louisville, Ky., and that both Kid Rock and a slurry of dozing B-listers from the Oxygen network are paid to attend that stupid Doublemint party? Well, as much as it pains me to burst that particularly appealing bubble — no, Derby’s not about that. The international viewing audience cares as much about Bill Paxton as I do, which is not a whit.

No, friends, Derby is about Tradition with a ghostly capital T that spells Trouble. I think we should be honest with ourselves and submit that the pageantry of Derby is a partially conscious atavistic and anachronistic memorialization of the ante-bellum South from a safe historical vantage point. This Saturday, look for the obligatory camera shot of a white woman in a giant hat with a tear trickling down her cheek behind a chiffon veil as she sings the revised lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home.” That is what Derby’s about.

Our festival is an annual spring offering to the myth of Southern benevolence, and our state song, in spite of every indication that might direct us to an alternate interpretation, is the dirge we sing to memorialize the death of the pre-industrial plantation culture built on human bondage. Bummer, huh?

The song was originally entitled “Poor Uncle Tom, Goodnight” and was likely influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In light of this, the lyrics take on a tone of abolitionist sympathy that, in any degree, is in direct conflict with the popular emotional conception of the song. This disparity between hazy authorial intent and clouded public understanding was complicated even further when the completely offensive word “darky” was removed by an edict of the state Senate in 1986. This type of historic sterilization is understandable, troublesome and delicate in equal measure. The upshot is, we’ve all been given psychic and social carte blanche to sing “My Old Kentucky Home” each year, ever and anon, with something of a lie in our hearts.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Stephen Foster’s song. I think the melody is gorgeous, and I know I’m not the only one who has a hard time not weeping in direct opposition to the song’s instructions. So seriously, why the hell are we crying when we sing this song? At the core, the emotional impact, intended or not, relies on something very human: the collective longing for simpler times.

I don’t want to be a spoiler, friends. I only wish to suggest that those times were not that simple.