You may think you don't know any Stephen Foster songs, but if you've ever attended or tuned in to the Kentucky Derby you are familiar with at least one: My Old Kentucky Home, sung by 170,000 attendees every year at the Derby. He also wrote the popular American tunes Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and Old Folks Home (aka Suwannee River), which is the Florida State Song. Foster has been called America's first pop artist because his tunes were so popular and have had lasting appeal.

No one is exactly sure when the tradition of singing My Old Kentucky Home at Derby began. Based on newspaper accounts, the first singing happened in 1921 when joyous Derby goers broke into the song after a Kentucky owned and bred horse won the race. Then in 1929 there were reports that the song was played throughout the day – probably by a band because the track didn’t have a sound system in 1929. 

The first mention of the crowd singing My Old Kentucky Home when the horses step onto the track for the Post Parade, like they do today, was in 1930. The next five years are a little fuzzy but the song has been played almost every year since 1936 by the University of Louisville Marching Band.  

Stephen Foster wrote the song in 1853 and was it incredibly popular through the Civil War. It was declared the official state song of the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the late 20s.

It’s one of the best and most moving moments at the Derby. So break out your julep and learn and the words for Derby 143!


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 boom,

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 come 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.

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