Emily Bingham, "My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song" (Knopf, 2022)

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Any song as old and as familiar as “My Old Kentucky Home” is bound to have accrued many different meanings and an interesting history. Emily Bingham’s book, My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song (Knopf, 2022) delivers on the promise of its title. In this book Bingham uses the reception of “My Old Kentucky Home,” composed in 1853 by Stephen Foster, to consider how white Americans have constructed a story about the United States that washes away racism and silences the pain of enslavement and racialized violence. Bingham traces the journey of “My Old Kentucky Home” from a popular minstrel song written by an alcoholic Northerner to Lost Cause anthem to American patriotic hymn to a symbol of a reckoning over United States history that is still unfinished. She explains how Black Americans’ responses to “My Old Kentucky Home” illuminates the challenges and contradictions of living within a racist system while also protesting it. Bingham also reveals the lengths to which some people will go in order to maintain an inauthentic history that conforms to a comforting national and even personal self-image.

Kristen M. Turner is a lecturer in the music and honors departments at North Carolina State University. Her research centers on race and class in American popular entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century.

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