Stephen Foster: Darkies, People and Great Music

Stephen Foster, My Old Kentucky Home by William Sharp.

An invitation from Stanford University to attend “An Evening with Stephen Foster” had me searching my library for a book I last remember reading 50 years ago. Incredibly, I found it in a stack of music on the bottom shelf of a cabinet—A Treasury of Stephen Foster, illustrated with preface, historical notes, and arrangements.

Stephen Foster was born on the Fourth of July in 1826, slavery was the law of the land and California was still part of Mexico. On that same day, the second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died—the country was only 50 years old. Foster died 38 years later in 1864. He was dead broke with 38 cents in his pocket.

In his short life he left a grand musical legacy, which is described in the Treasury’s opening essay:

“Foster composed about 200 songs and a few instrumental pieces. Of the songs, a half dozen rank with the world’s greatest ballads; at least 25 of them have become American folksongs; and more than 50 are well worthy of preservation. Foster’s songs fall into several types. The songs he wrote for the minstrel shows, the so-called ‘Ethiopian songs,’ were either the nonsense type of Oh! Susanna and Camptown Races, or the homesick plantation songs—Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home, and Massa’s in de Cold Ground.”

Of these works, “Oh! Susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home” were on the program of Stanford’s “Evening with Stephen Foster”. The Evening also included “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Hard Times Come Again No More.

The evening’s speaker, music historian Ken Emerson, talked about Foster’s music and his life. I was surprised to learn the Foster was not a Southerner; he was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New York to be nearer the center of the music publishing business.

Despite the many racial slurs that show up in the lyrics of Foster’s songs, the speaker was of the opinion that the overall effect of Foster’s music was to bring to the North a better awareness of the struggles of southern African Americans.

Illustration, My Old Kentucky Home, by William Sharp.

Emerson noted in particular that My Old Kentucky Home has an anti-slavery message motivated by Harriet Beacher Stow’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His opinion is echoed in the Treasury of Stephen Foster; where the historical note for the song says:

“The story is curiously similar to the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the first verse ‘the sun shines bright’ and ‘the darkies are gay.’ ‘By’n bye Hard Times comes a knocking at the door,’ and ‘the time has come when the darkies have to part.’ Presumably they are sold to the plantations of the Deep South, ‘were the head must bow and the back will have to bend…. In the field where the sugar canes grow.'”

In adopting Foster’s song as the state song of Kentucky, the Kentucky legislature mandated that the word ‘darkies’ be changed to ‘people’. They thus changed the sense of the song. Ironically, the lone black legislator was offended by the word, and he suggested the change.

The evening closed with Foster’s Hard Times where the audience came in on the chorus:

“Tis the song, the sigh of the weary.
Hard time, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.
Oh, hard time, come again no more.”

This song is as appropriate today as it was in Foster’s time.

The music in the Stanford program was provided by Bill Evans (banjoist and author of Banjo for Dummies), Marsha Genensky (founding member of Anonymous 4), and Scott Nygaard (Grammy award winning guitarist). The music was great, a tribute to the musicians and to Stephen Collins Foster.

Thank you Stanford Continuing Studies and Stanford American Studies Program, sponsors of the evening with Stephen Foster.

1. Representative Carl Hines (Democrat-Louisville) was the Kentucky legislator who in 1959 suggested changing the words of My Old Kentucky Home.
2. My Old Kentucky Home State Park is in Bardstown, Kentucky. A musical review of Stephen Foster songs is featured in the park. The word ‘people’ is replaced by ‘children’ in the first verse of their version of My Old Kentucky Home.

My Old Kentucky Home (Kentucky State Song)
Words and Music by: Stephen C. Foster

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home
‘Tis summer, the people 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, good night!


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 that 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 people have to part,
Then my old Kentucky home, good night!


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


From Kentucky Revised Statutes Annotated, Chapter 2.100: “LRC Note: The modern version of ‘My Old Kentucky Home‘ was adopted during the 1986 Regular Session of the General Assembly by the House of Representatives in House Resolution 159 and the Senate in Senate Resolution 114.

Day 78: A Treasury of Stephen Foster, Historical Notes by John Tasker Howard, Arrangements by Ray Lev and Dorothy Berliner Commins, Illustrations by William Sharp (Random House, 1946).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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