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The behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary essay series about preparing songs for performance.

Kentucky Babe

-- (1896; Music by Adam Geibel; Words by Richard Henry Buck)

From the script for “A Little Travelin' Music”:

Song intro:

Kentucky is known as the “Bluegrass State,” a nickname based on the bluegrass found in many of its pasture due to the fertile soil.  The central bluegrass region was home to many tobacco plantations and horse farms in the 1800s, which thrived on the labor of African Americans.

Our next song, originally advertised as a “Plantation Lullaby”, hearkens back to that time period.

Recap: The Sounds of Indiana barbershop chorus presented what we call ‘The Travel Show’ in 2018, following the same “standard documentary format” that had been so enthusiastically received for the previous year’s ‘The Indiana Show.’  As before, this concert format presents a mix of chorus and quartet songs set around a particular theme, interspersed with slides of short video clips each paired with a Ken Burns-style voice-over narration to introduce and sometimes close out each song.  The song order for The Travel Show was determined roughly by the geography of each song.  From Kalamazoo, Michigan, last week, we now travel south to Kentucky.


The origins of this song seem to be somewhat murky.  Unlike almost all the other the songs in The Travel Show, there was no Wikipedia article for this one, and I found few other websites to provide additional information.  Perhaps because this is the oldest dated song in the program.  (Shenandoah, which we’ll get to in a month or so, may have originated a century or more earlier, but with an American folk song like this, we can’t nail down when the now-familiar words and melody became codified into the ones we know today.)


That said, from the cover of the sheet music, we know that Kentucky Babe was published in 1896 with the subtitle “A Plantation Lullaby.”  Beyond the song’s writers and publisher, the cover also features a portrait of a woman and the text “Introduced by Isadore Rush.”  Rush, it turns out, was a turn-of-the-20th-century vaudeville and Broadway actress, so the song may have been featured in one of her acts or shows in the late 1890s.  Lastly, a caricatured black child’s head peaks over the “Introduced by” label, a vision of the titular babe to whom the song’s lyrics are addressed.


Further on in the song’s history, it was arranged for barbershop in 1946 by John Hanson, and later included in 1952’s Songs for Men, Vol. 5, part of a yearly collection of a dozen or so short songs and simple arrangements that could be sung at chapter meetings.  It was then rearranged in 2007 by Kirk Roose, who simplified some of the chords and modified the lyrics, according to our sheet music, “to be more compatible with today’s world, giving us a fresh arrangement of this old chestnut.”

The song is indeed a lullaby, softly hushing a child to sleep with images of a quiet night in old Kentucky, urging them to fly off into dreamland.  Nonetheless, the words, at least as we sing them, also have a heavy emotional tone behind them.  Here they are reprinted from our 2007 arrangement:

‘Skeeters are a-hummin’ on the honeysuckle vine,

sleep Kentucky babe (Kentucky babe!)!

Sandman is a-comin’ to this little child of mine,

sleep Kentucky babe (Kentucky babe!)!


Silv’ry moon is shinin’ in the heavens up above.

Bobolink is pinin’ for his little lady love,

You are mighty lucky Babe of old Kentucky,

close your eyes in sleep.


Fly away (fly away), fly away Kentucky babe

fly away to rest, fly away (fly away),


lay your sleepy little head on your mother’s breast.

Hmm hmm

Close your eyes (close your eyes) in sleep.


Melodically, the song builds tension in “close your eyes in sleep” to lead to a high point at “Fly away.”  But for me, the emotional crux of the song always seemed to be the previous line: “You are might lucky, babe of old Kentucky.”  Why “lucky”?  And why specifically “old Kentucky”?


One evening at rehearsal, the chorus was collectively trying to unpack the emotional content behind this song.  We talked about the setting, working on our usual practice of visualizing the “why” of the story, and then letting that come through our voices and bodies.  We knew that we were in Kentucky, obviously, on perhaps a warm summer evening with mosquitoes (“skeeters”) buzzing outside on the flowers and songbirds (a “bobolink”) twittering in the moonlight.  But when? I wondered.  Not what time of day, but what era?  Someone mentioned the Civil War, and it hit me.


This song is an African-American parent, or perhaps grandparent, singing to their child.  If the setting is an 1890s Kentucky tobacco plantation, as indicated by the original sheet music, then the singer is most likely a former slave.  “You are mighty lucky, child, because you don’t remember that time.  You get to close your eyes and forget about the word, fly away to a place where you don’t have to worry about that era of oppression, your heritage back in Old Kentucky.  Sleep peacefully now while you can, child, before you have to grow up and awake to this new era, which is honestly not much better.”


Immediately, I had to share this internal monologue with the rest of the group.  Some people sighed deeply, hung their heads, or held their chests.  It was toward the end of rehearsal, not the best time to hit everyone with such heavy emotion.  “Oh, Andy, why would you do this to us at 9:20 at night?!” I remember one member commented.  “I mean, you’re absolutely right, but whoa!”


It just fit, though.  Putting that emotion behind the words fit the history of the song.


The 1946 version, presumably based directly on the 1896 original, featured stereotypical black dialect, which suggests to me that the original stage performance—possibly by Isadore Rush herself (note: a white woman)—was probably as part of a minstrel show.  This type of entertainment used comic skits, acts, songs, and dancing to mock people of African descent, usually played by white performers wearing “blackface” makeup.  (The effect was similar to the stereotyped child on the cover of the sheet music!)  Highly popular in the mid-1800s, minstrel shows declined in prevalence toward the end of the century as the acting and music left the caricatures behind and transitioned into 20th-century vaudeville.


On top of the blackface makeup, this dialectal form of African-American English was regularly used by white people to evoke dim-wittedness or laziness in their black characters.  (Consider, for example, the novel “Gone with the Wind” and more than one Stephen Foster tune, including “Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)” and “Camptown Ladies.”)  Nowadays, we view it as highly racist, but up through at least the 1950s, this speech was still used to evoke the “darkies” of the old south.  These words, in fact, are what our 2007 arrangement is referring to when it notes, as I mentioned earlier, that Roose “modified the lyrics … to be more compatible with today’s world.”


For comparison, then, here are the lyrics from the 1946 printing.  (Please be careful with your modern sensibility; this hurts me to type and may hurt you to read.)

‘Skeeters am a-hummin’ on de honeysuckle vine,

Sleep, Kentucky Babe!

Sandman am a-comin’ to dis little coon of mine,

Sleep, Kentucky Babe!


Silv-ry moon am shinin’ in de heabens up above,

Bobolink am pinin’ for his little lady love;

You is mighty luck, Babe from old Kentucky,

Close your eyes in sleep.


Fly away, fly away,

Fly away Kentucky Babe,

Fly away to rest.

Fly away, fly away,


Lay yo’ kinky, wooly head on yo’ mammy’s breast,

yo’ mammy’s breast.

Humm, hum.


Close your eyes in sleep, sleep, sleep.

Close your eyes in sleep.


I don’t know if our interpretation would even still fit on that older language, at least with any serious presentation.  The words are just too derisive and scornful.  They wholly take away from the sentiment, the emotion, the why of the song.


But they did influence me when I wrote the narrations for this piece.  The final version heard in the show is shared at the top of this article, but the initial draft was much darker:

Song intro:
Kentucky is known as the "Bluegrass State," a nickname based on the bluegrass found in many of its pastures due to the fertile soil.  The central bluegrass region was home to many tobacco plantations and horse farms, which thrived on the labor of enslaved African Americans.  Our next song, originally advertised as a “Plantation Lullaby”, hearkens back to that time period.


Song outro:

During the American Civil War, Kentucky officially remained a neutral border state, even though it still allowed slavery.  The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified by the required three-fourths of the states in 1865, but Kentucky didn’t join the list of ratifiers until 1976.


This version of the text brought down the tone of the show with a big splotch of darkness, and in fact ended up presenting Kentucky as the only negative stop on our travel itinerary.  While I was actually sitting the recording booth, therefore, I reworked the words to remove, or at least thin out, this dark cloud hanging over Kentucky and its spot in our script.  I removed the direct references to slavery (and thus the entire outro paragraph), but I hope I kept the seriousness that is due to this piece.


Our country and our level of intercultural understanding have come a long way since the time this song was written, and especially since the time that it’s about.  So even though Thanksgiving is now passed, I encourage you to continue to keep in mind not just what you’re thankful for, but what you’re lucky to have.

In harmony,



November 25, 2018

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