Although the flowers are still in bloom and the grass has turned that signature blue-ish green, things are no doubt different this year.
The traditional pageantry that kicks off springtime in the commonwealth – the Kentucky Derby – isn’t happening on the first Saturday in May for the first time since 1945.
A pandemic has put us all on pause.
However, while we’re relegated to our homes, left to wait for an unpredictable amount of time for things to get back to “normal,” our spirit still resonates. You see it when the green lights turn on. You hear it when the bells toll.
On Saturday, you’ll feel it when that old familiar song plays. Our song.
Since 1936, UofL’s Marching Cards have served as “The Official Band of the Kentucky Derby,” opening up the “Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports” with our rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Each year, our students play this song to about 150,000 people at Churchill Downs and an additional 15 million television viewers across the world.
By the time the band is finished playing, there typically aren’t many dry eyes left. A Courier Journal columnist described this experience best last year: “I’ve interviewed Kentuckians who haven’t set foot in the state for 30 years who still stand in front of their televisions and weep when they hear the woodwinds and brass instruments strike the first few notes of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’
The lyrics tell us that there’ll be hard times, by and by. But at the crescendo, it’s as if 150,000 voices nudge us to weep no more.”
Has there been a better time for such a nudge than now?
UofL’s drum major Natalie Humble didn’t want that feeling – that experience – to get lost this year.
So, she reached out to a few of her friends, both at UofL and at other colleges and universities across Kentucky, and asked if they would want to perform a virtual version of the state song and debut the finished piece on May 2, what would have been Derby Day.
“I came up with the idea one day while doing online schoolwork and reflecting on what the semester would have been like in a normal situation. ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ popped into my head and I immediately wanted to create something that brought some normality back into the spring. But I wanted it to be something that all of us – as Kentuckians – resonated with,” Humble said.
Everyone she reached out to was interested. In fact, Humble recruited about 100 total participants – about half of whom are UofL students. Another 20 or so are UofL School of Music alums, a handful are UofL faculty and the rest are from other institutions throughout the state. Thirteen total institutions, to be exact.
“We had a massive amount of interest from students at UofL, and it was really incredible to see the alums show so much interest. I am truly proud of how many other schools we got to participate,” she said.
Humble, a rising senior Music Education major from Monticello, Kentucky, has performed at the Derby twice. Her favorite memory was during her freshman year, when it down poured.
“It doesn’t sound like much fun, but it was so memorable that I can still feel the adrenaline now just the same as I did on that day,” she said.
Although performing “My Old Kentucky Home” to kick off the Derby is a signature UofL experience, Humble said it was important to get other schools involved this year because of the unusual circumstances created by COVID-19.
“As a college student and as a Kentuckian, I know how hard it is to adjust, and this experience is something that we all share. In times like this, it is especially important for all of us to realize that we aren’t alone and that we’re a team, so inviting everyone to be part of such a meaningful project was the most valuable part of the whole idea,” she said.
“The Derby performance always represents togetherness for me. It is such a short part of the timeline, but it is a time where all the people watching – no matter where they are in the world – are taking a moment to pause and come together. I think this year’s performance represents the same thing, just in a different way.”
The following schools will be represented in the performance: Campbellsville University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgetown College, Ivy Tech Community College, Lindsey Wilson College, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Thomas More University, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, University of the Cumberlands, Western Kentucky University.