When Kentucky split from Virginia and joined the Union in 1792, much of the state was still looked upon as wilderness. During the next few decades, as the threat of Indian attack lessened and commerce increased, communities such as Frankfort, Louisville and Lexington grew from backwater frontier towns to major urban centers, offering many of the amenities available in the nation’s older, more established cities. Classical architecture increasingly replaced log and frame structures, and citizens pursued the latest trends. Music was no exception.
One of the most popular forms of musical entertainment in early 19th century Kentucky, and America in general, was the minstrel show. The image of happy-go-lucky slaves—generally portrayed by whites in blackface—provided a socially acceptable, although wildly inaccurate and cruelly imitative, counterpoint to the realities of slavery. People throughout both the North and the South would attend these traveling shows, applauding songs depicting the supposedly bucolic and wistful side of slavery. For the most part, the songs were written by white composers.
One prolific writer of minstrel songs was Stephen Collins Foster, a Northerner who reportedly visited the South only once in his life. Although he is known today for lilting ballads such as “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and the heart-wrenching “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” Foster also was responsible for widely performed minstrel numbers, including “Camptown Races” and “Old Black Joe.” One of his more popular songs, “Massa’s in de Cold Ground,” is typical of the fare offered by the minstrel shows, racial dialect and all:
Round de meadows am a ringing
De darkeys’ mournful song,
While de mockingbird am singing,
Happy as de day am long.
Where de ivy am a creeping
O’er de grassy mound,
Dare old massa am a sleeping,
Sleeping in de cold, cold ground.
Down in de corn-field
Hear dat mournful sound:
All de darkeys am a weeping,
Massa’s in de cold, cold ground.
Perhaps Foster’s most famous and long-lived minstrel show composition was “My Old Kentucky Home,” originally introduced in the 1850s as “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night” and performed by the blackface group Christy’s Minstrels:
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
’Tis summer, the darkies are gay,
The corn top’s ripe and the meadows in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy and bright.
By’n by Hard Times comes a knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky Home, good night!
Weep no more, my lady,
Oh! Weep no more to-day!
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky Home,
For the old Kentucky Home far away.
The song enjoyed widespread popularity, and no less a personage than African-American statesman and former slave Frederick Douglass apparently felt it inspired “sympathies for the slave.” During the coming decades and well into the 20th century, it spawned countless imitations, with obvious titles such as “I Am Longing for My Old Kentucky Home,” “My New Kentucky Home,” “Farewell Kentucky Home,” “She’s the Sunshine of Her Old Kentucky Home,” “I’m Gwine to My Old Kentucky Home,” “Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old ’Tucky Home,” “We’ll Have a Jubilee in My Old Kentucky Home,” “Just a Bird’s Eye View of My Old Kentucky Home” and “You’ll Always Find a Lot of Sunshine in My Old Kentucky Home.”
In 1928, the original “My Old Kentucky Home” was adapted as Kentucky’s state song; however, it underwent significant alterations in 1986, when Carl R. Hines Sr., an African-American state representative from Louisville, formally objected, not surprisingly, to the line, “’Tis summer, the darkies are gay,” as conveying “connotations of racial discrimination.” The Kentucky legislature agreed and voted to change the line. It now reads, “’Tis summer, the people are gay.” Today, Bardstown’s My Old Kentucky Home State Park, with the stately Federal Hill Plantation House as its centerpiece, draws tourists with the often-questioned claim that Stephen Foster once visited the mansion and used it as the inspiration for his famous song.
The 19th century also saw the rise in popularity of parlor-ballads. These songs generally were slow and sentimental in nature, and were sung, as the term suggests, in the parlors and drawing rooms of private homes, typically to the accompaniment of a piano. The demand for printed copies of the latest songs was tremendous, and the mid-1800s was a hectic time for the publishers of sheet music in Kentucky. Centered in Louisville, and beginning around 1830, the state’s music publishing industry cranked out songs by the thousands. Instrumental music was highly popular as well, as indicated by the vast number of waltzes, polkas, quick-steps, schottisches and marches the Louisville music publishing houses turned out.
William C. Peters and D.P. Faulds were two of Louisville’s most prominent publishers, but it was a broad field. Louisville in mid-century—by virtue of its strategic location as a commercial center for both the western and southern territories—was ideally placed as a printer and distributor of popular music. In addition to printing sheet music, some of the more entrepreneurial publishers manufactured and sold pianos, provided lessons and staged concerts. Louisville quickly became one of the busiest purveyors of popular music in the country.
Not surprisingly, much of the early Louisville sheet music focused on Kentucky. The music ranged from the sentimental (“I Long for My Home in Kentucky”) to the patriotic (“Funeral March on the Death of Henry Clay”) to the martial (“Louisville Citizen Guards Quickstep”) and occasionally to the racist (“The Belle of Koontucky”). Within a short time, publishers from New York (“The Kentucky Riflemen’s Quick Step”) to San Francisco (“The Kentucky Jubilee Singer’s Schottische”) were printing music with Kentucky-based themes.
Songs of the Civil War
When the nation was torn asunder in 1861, Kentucky was one of only a handful of states to send its sons to fight for both the Union and the Confederacy. This ambivalence was shared by several music publishers, who refused to let patriotism trump commerce, and catered to the musical tastes of both North and South.
The Civil War was America’s last musical conflict. Soldiers on both sides marched to the cadence of the fife and drum, regiments formed their own bands, and the men sang songs of home, loved ones, God and tragic death. Many of these songs are instantly identifiable as belonging distinctly to one side ...
O, the grapeshot and muskets and the cannon lumber loud.
It’s many a mangled body, the blanket for the shroud.
It’s many a mangled body left on the field alone;
I am a Rebel soldier, and far from my home.
… or the other:
‘Sherman’s dashing Union boys will never make the coast!’
So the saucy Rebels said, and ’twas a handsome boast,
Had they not forgot, alas! To reckon with the Host,
While we were marching through Georgia!
There were also those songs that were claimed and sung by both sides. Songs with a sentimental theme of dying in battle with thoughts of mother or wife and children were common, and Americans across the country sang such Louisville-spawned tearjerkers as “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh” and “The Lone Grave by the Sea.” One of the most moving ballads, “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight,” originally was written by a Northern woman as a poem, “The Picket Guard,” set to music by a Confederate soldier, and published in sheet music form in 1863. The song tells of a soldier on picket duty who longs for his wife, and for “the two in the low trundle-bed.” As he “mutters a prayer for the children asleep” and wipes a tear from his eye, a rifle shot suddenly ends his reverie:
All quiet along the Potomac tonight—
No sound but the rush of the river;
While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead—
The picket’s off-duty forever.
By the end of the war, the sheet music format was shifting from a single folded sheet to four or five sheets, including an elaborately engraved or lithographed front and back cover and, in keeping with the trend of the time, a chorus. The decorative quality of the sheets was outstanding, often featuring an illustration relating to the song or dance tune inside, and various styles of intricate scroll work and lettering, sometimes in vivid color.
From Cabin to Coal Mine
Despite the popularity of parlor-ballads, there were many who held fast to the music of their ancestors. The traditional ballads, “play-party” songs, and dance tunes that had taken root and grown in the “hills and hollers” since the days of the pioneers remained a musical mainstay for a rugged population, and the strains of the fiddle, banjo and dulcimer continued to be heard in the backcountry communities of the state.
As the old century gave way to the new, the economy of Appalachia gradually turned from the farm to the coal mine. As did their forbears in Scotland and Ireland, the creators and singers of song came to adopt subjects more in keeping with current events. The first decades of the 20th century saw a new type of song enter the realm of Kentucky music: the coal-mining ballad. Some examples, such as “Two-Cent Coal,” date back to the 1870s. The United Mine Workers of America was founded in 1890, and as it fought to establish a foothold in the coal mines of Kentucky, songs arose to chronicle the union’s struggle. One bitter classic, “A Miner’s Life,” was adapted from the old religious song, “Life’s Railway to Heaven”:
You’ve been docked and docked again, boys, you’ve been loading three for one.
What’s the use in all your working when your mining days are done?
Worn out shoes and worn out miners, blackened lungs and faces pale;
Oh keep your hand upon your wages and your eye upon the scale
Union miners, stand together!
Do not heed the Coal Board’s tale.
Keep your hand upon your wages,
And your eye upon the scale.
Although the times and technology would change with the coming decades, the hazards of working in the mines remain, as the songs would continue to reflect.
Just as had the 19th century, the 20th century would bring major changes to Kentucky, but its musical heritage would remain firmly intact. The interpretation, the means of delivering the songs, the instruments themselves, all might morph into something new and different, but at bedrock, the traditional beating heart of the music never faltered. With the new century would come ragtime and jazz, bluegrass and country, but their roots would be firmly planted in Kentucky’s rich musical soil.
The final installment of the “Our State. Our Sounds.” series will appear in our April issue.