"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
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
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
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.
Towards a New Theory
Previous explanations of the Drinking Gourd song
– whatever their
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.