I wrote this two years ago on the day of the Kentucky Derby. The derby was supposed to be run today but it has been rescheduled for September; the first postponement since World War II. What better time then, to reflect on My Old Kentucky Home.
For those who don’t know, “My Old Kentucky Home” is the state song of Kentucky. It was written by Stephen Foster in 1852 and was most recently recorded by John Prine. It is sung at the end of every University of Kentucky men’s basketball game, before the start of every Kentucky Derby, and whenever a group of Kentuckians gets together to wax nostalgic about their birth state. Here’s the first verse:
Oh, the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home
‘Tis summer, the old folks are gay
Where the corn top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day
Weep no more, my lady
Oh, weep no more today
We’ll sing one song
For my old Kentucky home
For my old Kentucky home, far away
It’s been 22 years since I left Kentucky; land of my birth and land of birth for more than 200 years worth of my ancestors. We were already there when Kentucky gained its statehood and we’ve been there ever since. When I try to assign a single image to my family there is only one that ever comes to my mind; a plowed field.
We have always been farmers. Our ancestors, arriving from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, disembarked from boats in Virginia and the Carolinas and began working off their indentures. They worked the fields of large landowners for the privilege of one day having their own fields to tend. And so it went from the 1730’s to the 1990’s, each family searching only for enough land to support their families.
And it ends with me. The family “business” was not an option. I got a business degree and moved north and married and divorced and still I remained in “the north” because it held the most promise for a single mom and a little girl who was born in a distant land. I spend my days staring at computer screens and sitting in conference rooms and occasionally I look out the windows and wish that I could feel the warmth of freshly plowed, limestone-rich dirt beneath my bare feet.
That dirt is life. That dirt is death. It holds the remains of all those who came before me and despite the death (or because of it) that dirt continues to produce life. It gives industrial grade corn and soybeans but also tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, melons and all the things that my father humbly asks it to provide.
And I swear that sometimes I hear the voices of my ancestors calling me to come back home; to pick up a handful of that dirt and let it sift through my fingers as the smell of life and death dance to my nose. I tell them “not yet” and they go silent for awhile but I know they will return on days like this when all the world is watching the horses race in Louisville and everyone sings “My Old Kentucky Home”.
Many of us will choke back tears because our Kentucky homes are far from where we now sit in living rooms and bars. But we will “weep no more today…we sill sing one song for our Old Kentucky home…for my Old Kentucky home far away” for we know that our Kentucky homes live on in our hearts and minds and in our memories of times spent with families.
The Sun Shines Bright
The sun shines bright on fields once tended by grandfather, father, grandmother, mother, little brother, and me
Now full of Roundup Ready corn, tended by a single farmer and spray rigs
The sun shines bright on rolling green hills once dotted with horses and cows
Now filled with three bedroom, two bathroom houses and swing sets
The sun shines bright on tin roofs of black barns that once sheltered Burley from the cold rains of fall
Now bearing silent witness to the livelihood that no longer is
The sun shines bright on a blue Ford tractor sitting in a shed
Waiting for a driver who has walked on to distant fields
The sun shines bright on fence rows that now exist only in my mind
Cleared to make way for two more bushels of soybeans
The sun shines bright on the Old Kentucky Home of my dreams
Weep no more for here it will always remain unchanged
P.S. the image at the top of this post is the barn where my family housed and stripped tobacco for more years than my father has been alive. It lost it’s struggle against the elements earlier this year and it now lies in an unrecognizable heap waiting to be burned.