Running south from Louisville even today is the Bardstown Road (now US 31E and 150), taken by Stephen Foster on his visit to Bardstown, Kentucky, in March of 1852. Despite the plantation imagery in his songs, this trip and a later steamboat voyage to New Orleans marked Foster's only sojourns in the South. In Bardstown you will find "My Old Kentucky Home State Park," where the stately Rowan plantation said to inspire the Commonwealth of Kentucky's official song still stands. The problem is that the song, according to Foster's biographer Ken Emerson, was not written until nine months later, and Foster's own notebooks show that the inspiration was a famous fictional Kentucky residence, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Another problem is that there is no secure historical proof that Foster actually visited the Rowan plantation, which even the place's guidebook has to acknowledge.
In the first draft of the song the title to the song is "Poor Uncle Tom, good night." The phrase is also used in a chorus of this version, which continues, "Grieve not for your old Kentucky home / Your [sic] bound for a better land Old Uncle Tom." Foster made the song a classic by dropping the darkface dialect he originally intended to use in favor of standard English - an innovation in "plantation songs," and one that proved definitive for Foster's later career and beyond. No longer would blacks be treated only comically in minstrel songs--here (and with "Old Folks at Home" Foster showed the way to treating them sympathetically. Foster made the song timeless by eliminating direct references to Uncle Tom, and wrote a new chorus keeping the phrase "old Kentucky Home" and introducing the mysterious "my lady" who is bidden to "weep no more." It is among the most beautiful of all Foster songs.