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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History


Afterword, or
"Is This Song 'Authentic'"?

What of this song is left to us?

Dr. Prince Brown, Director of the Northern Kentucky University Institute for Freedom Studies, after my talk at the Borderlands IV Underground Railroad Conference

I am constantly asked whether the Drinking Gourd is "authentic." I've learned not to answer immediately. Since authenticity can be defined in many different ways, this is actually several distinct questions rolled into one. I will take my best stab at answering, "What of this song is left to us?"

Could the song as it appears on most recordings and in the three children's books have been sung by escaping slaves?

No, because the lyrics and chorus were written by Lee Hays and first published in 1947, nearly 80 years after the end of the Civil War. (A much smaller number of recordings use the Randy Sparks version, which came even later.)

Could thousands of slaves have used the Drinking Gourd route to escape?

Based on our knowledge of slave escapes from the Deep South, I view the chances as vanishingly small. See here for the details.

From here on, I believe the evidence is sketchier.

Was Peg Leg Joe an actual person?

Perhaps. But even if there was a Drinking Gourd song "in the field", that doesn't prove that there really was a Peg Leg Joe. There are many songs based on real people, there are many songs based on composite characters, and there are many song based on fictional characters. For the record, I reviewed two decades' worth of minutes from the New England Anti-Slavery Society along with various Society ledger books.  I found H.B. Parks's great-uncle Dr. Harris Cowdry (who served as a Vice President from 1840 to 1848.) But sadly, there's no trace of a peg-legged sailor. Nothing would delight me more than to find the old salt lurking in a slave narrative or other primary source document. Please send any Peg Leg Joe sightings my way they would be very welcome indeed!

Did the collectors hear what they say they heard?

I am inclined to believe that Parks heard the song where, when and as he relates in his account. This was a man with tremendous powers of observation. With a colleague, he conducted a pioneering survey of the Big Thicket in East Texas. In 1945, he collected a previously unknown orchid which was then named for him. Upon his death, a colleague wrote, when "(i)n company with other collectors on field trips Mr. Parks generally collected the most material and the best specimens." (Alfred H. Alex, Journal of Economic Entomology, April 1959.) Follow the Drinking Gourd is his most notable specimen.

Lee Hays reported hearing a version of the song from his Aunty Laura. I don't know why he would mislead his fellow Weavers when presenting the work for arrangement and performance they certainly sang many other selections that had no direct connection to a group member. The John Woodum version as reported by Randy Sparks is confirmed by contemporaneous notes and remains a tantalizing variant and possible third source for the song.

I believe that versions of the Drinking Gourd song were sung by black Americans dating back to at least the early 20th century, and likely earlier than that.

Did the collectors report the song accurately and completely?

Parks wrote that the "Negro at College Station" who explained the song to him "said that the song had many verses which he could not remember. He quoted a number which, either by fault of memory or secret meaning, are unintelligible and are omitted." These missing verses could, of course, be extremely important in fully understanding and vetting the song. I contacted the schools Parks was associated with, various libraries and his family in a fruitless search for any working papers or unpublished notes. I had to conclude they were lost.

There are also problems with the musical transcription presented in the Parks article, which is atypical of black music and difficult to sing as presented.

Did the collectors interpret the song properly?

I have more questions than answers on the Parks account. His interpretation was based in turn on information relayed to him by a "Negro at College Station" and his great-uncle. As noted here, I do not believe Parks was able to confirm the account with a great-uncle. If I am right, this throws into doubt exactly who confirmed the interpretation and provided key additional details. If not a great-uncle, was it another relative, or anyone else? Absent this confirmation, could the black informant have misinterpreted parts of the song? What about the details supposedly supplied by the great-uncle, such as the region where Peg Leg Joe operated? Is it at all possible the route actually started in another locale and refers to other rivers  leading to a more welcoming territory than the hostile southern Illinois end point of the route as we know it?

I believe Lee Hays overstated the amount of information conveyed in the song. Hays thought it began as a camp revival song I have not been able to separately confirm this provenance.

So what are we left with? A song that played a rich role in the folk revival and civil rights movement, and that continues to be widely performed and recorded today. A song taught to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of schoolchildren owing to three award-winning children's books and a firm place in today's multi-cultural curriculum.

Drinking gourd, attributed to the Lincoln family

Towards a New Theory

Previous explanations of the Drinking Gourd song whatever their accuracy at least had the virtue of being internally consistent and neatly compelling! According to the received wisdom, Follow the Drinking Gourd was taught to slaves in the Mobile, Alabama region by a real person, an itinerant abolitionist who also marked the encoded route given in the song. This route was then used by slaves to escape northward to freedom, crossing the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky. This version hinged on H.B. Parks's assertion that a great-uncle who had been active in the Underground Railroad confirmed the particulars based on primary records.

As we have seen, there are serious questions on many of these points. If we believe Drinking Gourd was an actual folksong, but discount some or all of this explanation, we are then left with the most critical question of all: how to explain it? 

Drinking gourd, attributed to
the Lincoln family

Here is a preliminary new theory about the song and how it evolved. If the song predated the Civil War, it served principally as an inspiration to escaping slaves, like the Woodum version. The song would have contained limited or no map information. The geographic verses were added after the war, either by creating new verses, or by combining the Drinking Gourd verses with those from another song. (Traditional songs are so often combined "in the field" that ethnomusicologists have several terms of art for it, including "amalgamation" and the unfortunate sounding "contamination.")

It's also possible the song as we know it from the Parks account emerged in its entirety after the Civil War. Whether it arose before or after the war, we needn't argue about the historical authenticity of the song including the entire route, or the route ending in southern Illinois, or many other historical points because we can now evaluate the song as folklore, not as history.

Perhaps Peg Leg Joe was an actual abolitionist, or a composite character, working in the South. Perhaps the song actually traces the route of one or several intrepid freedom seekers and grew in popularity by celebrating their exploits. According to this theory, the collectors could have heard the songs in the field and the "Negro at College Station" could have correctly interpreted its meaning (as folklore.) But Parks did not confirm the story separately with a family member and there was no Drinking Gourd song complete with map information sung in the antebellum South.


I have tried to present the information I collected without editing it to favor my own point of view. Adherents of both sides of the authenticity argument will find plenty of ammunition to further their positions! My goal is to spur a thoroughgoing re-assessment of the song, its history and its cultural impact. I welcome suggestions on other lines of inquiry, and corrections to this research.

Underground Railroad myths die hard. But who needs myths when the real story of Follow the Drinking Gourd is so fascinating? A story with larger-than-life characters like H.B. Parks and Lee Hays, and mysterious ones like Aunty Laura and John Woodum. Let's all tell the real Drinking Gourd story. I hope you agree it's a great one.

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Copyright 2008 - 2012, Joel Bresler.