05/07/2011 10:53AM

Weep No More

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The dedicated traditionalist in this correspondent appreciates all the doodads draped upon the Kentucky Derby that pluck at the emotional strings. The hats, the juleps, the celebrities, the infield antics -- it's a grand fantasy writ large in which somewhere there exists a horse race, and the way it's been done for decades is just fine with me.

I suppose someday I will get used to the fact that America's most treasured sporting event has been irrevocably stamped by the Yum! Brands family of products, putting Pizza Hut, A&W, Taco Bell, Long John Silver's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and WingStreet on equal footing with Calumet Farm, E.R. Bradley, Eddie Arcaro, Wayne Lukas, Isaac Murphy, Ben Jones and Bill Hartack. It's the price we pay for living in a modern age. And I was okay with the TV driven shift to a 6:30ish Derby post time, a move that gave Californians an extra hour to get oiled up at West Coast Derby parties. Can an 8 p.m. Derby post be far behind?

The most dramatic concession to tradition, however, occurred a quarter century ago when the state's official song -- which also happens to be the musical theme of the Kentucky Derby -- had its original lyrics scrubbed and repackaged for broader consumption.

"My Old Kentucky Home" brings tears to the eyes when it is belted out across the Louisville countryside. Derby jockeys cite those musical moments during the post parade as the most memorable of the day, short of winning the race or getting eliminated at the start. Stephen Foster, a native of Pennsylvania, published the tune in 1853. Foster died broke in New York at the age of 37 after writing "Beautiful Dreamer," "Camptown Races," "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Oh! Susanna" -- where's ASCAP when you need it? -- but at least there's a decent horse race named in his honor.

"My Old Kentucky Home" is a very, very sad song (at least the "Star-Spangled Banner" is sung to an old British barroom ditty), and to sing it through does not lift the spirits as much as make you want to pour another drink. Here is what Foster wrote and was proudly sung at the Derby for most of the 20th century: 

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
'Tis summer, the darkies are gay;
The corn-top's ripe and the meadow's 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, goodnight.

Weep no more my lady
Oh! weep no more today!
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home,
For the Old Kentucky Home far away.

They hunt no more for the possum and the coon,
On meadow, the hill and the shore,
They sing no more by the glimmer of the moon,
On the bench by the old cabin door.

The day goes by like a shadow o'er the heart,
With sorrow, where all was delight,
The time has come when the darkies have to part,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

[Chorus]

The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darky may go;
A few more days, and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow;

A few more days for to tote the weary load,
No matter, 'twill never be light;
A few more days till we totter on the road,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

[Chorus]

Anyway, the modern version is tradition now, just as the Derby presence of the Pizza Hut logo will be old news in a decade or so. None of this should distract from the main business at hand, which is trying to pick the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

It is hard to steer too far away from the three classically positioned colts who seem to come to the race with most of the tough questions answered -- at least when compared to the opposition. I put Dialed In, Archarcharch and Mucho Macho Man in that group. But then, it may be time to cast aside old prejudices (and not just in terms of 19th century song lyrics) and look to another group of three horses who have bankable credentials on surfaces other than the rolled, scraped version of "dirt" over which the Derby will be run, namely Master of Hounds, Animal Kingdom and Brilliant Speed. Narrowing a field of 19 down to six ain't exactly heavy lifting, so let's go with a Dialed In-Master of Hounds exacta and mix the others around and underneath as the exotic spirit moves. 

And may the day go by not with a shadow, but a lucky rainbow o'er the heart.

blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Jay , exactly why I'm glad I'm a native Californian. Cleaned up lyrics or not that song makes me puke. Despite my moniker I'm whiter than a white tornado (Vigors) . Those dang backwards hillbillies are stubborn . That song mars the moment and should be scrapped altogether.
Peggy More than 1 year ago
Thanks, Jay. The real words have been a long time comin', too.