In the 1940s “Kentucky” was the greatest hit of Karl and Harty, one of radio's most popular country music duos during the heyday of live hillbilly music in Chicago. Soon after it was released in 1941, aspects of “Kentucky” were already being forgotten—indeed, were predicated on forgetting outmoded racial formations and modes of song transmission—though the song is explicitly about remembering the lost spaces of rural, southern youth. The nostalgic sentimentality of “Kentucky” occludes a secondary stratum of musical and textual qualities that evoke racialized modes of dance and entertainment. Through close analysis, interviews, and archival work, we examine the song's racial and geographical signifiers and source models to show how tensions between its dual dialectic of memory/forgetting and sentimentality/entertainment participated in the mid-twentieth-century decline of hillbilly music and rise of commercial country.
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