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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History


Collection Story

It is doubtful if any thing more novel than H.B. Parks' 'Follow the Drinking Gourd' has ever been printed in the realm of American folklore...

J. Frank Dobie, from the Preface to Foller de Drinkin' Gou'd

H.B. Parks

This version collected in 1912 (Hot Springs, North Carolina), 1913 (Louisville) and 1918 (Waller, Texas). Published in 1928.

Follow the Drinking Gourd was first published in 1928 by the Texas Folklore Society. It was "discovered" by H.B. Parks, a Texas entomologist who was also an amateur folklorist. The Parks article claims that an Underground Railroad operative, known as Peg Leg Joe, moved from plantation to plantation just north of the Mobile, Alabama area working as a journeyman laborer. This work was a front for Joe's true task: teaching slaves the Drinking Gourd song and marking an escape route.

Follow the Drinking Gourd, Texas Folklore Society, 1928


Drinking Gourd collector H.B. Parks

Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, Number VII, Austin, 1928


H.B. (Harris Braley) Parks,

Follow the Drinking Gourd map and routeThe song ostensibly encodes escape instructions and a map from Mobile, Alabama up the Tombigbee River, over the divide to the Tennessee River, then downriver to where the Tennessee and Ohio rivers meet in Paducah, Kentucky. (Map adapted from the Educator's Guide to Follow the Drinking Gourd, 1995.) The "drinking gourd" is a code name for the Big Dipper star formation, which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and North.

According to Parks, he heard the song three times:  first in North Carolina in 1912, then Louisville around 1913, and Texas in 1918. The lyrics were explained to him by yet another person in Texas. All of his informants were black.

A Clever Fabrication?

There has been speculation (1) for decades that the song was a clever fabrication. No other map songs survive to the present. Also, aside from Parks's account, there seemed little other evidence of a song that ranged from North Carolina to Kentucky to Texas. It has never been found in its home territory of Alabama, and Alabama was extensively researched by local song collectors and many outsiders. In other words, one amateur folklorist accidentally hears three different versions of the song in an area comprising almost one hundred thousand square miles, while no one else appears to collect it anywhere. The article is also the first instance I have found of "drinking gourd" used as a coded synonym for the Big Dipper. It doesn't appear in any of the period newspapers or slave testimonies I've searched.

At this point, the song could still have been considered folklore – a curious tale, perhaps based on a historical person, but not necessarily "history." But in his article, Parks claims to have written to a great-uncle who explained the song and confirmed the existence of Peg Leg Joe. Parks's only grandchild told me that according to family lore, both sides of the family were involved in the Underground Railroad. I have confirmed that Parks's maternal great-uncle, Dr. Harris Cowdry, served as a Vice President of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, from 1840 to 1848. (2)

But by the time Parks says he heard the song, both Cowdry and his son were dead. In fact, Cowdry died in 1875, four years before Parks was born. It's very unlikely that someone from Parks's grandparents' generation survived long enough to assist him in his research. (3) This makes it quite unclear who (if anyone) from his family might have actually confirmed the story.

The Case for the Defense

There is no reason to deny it except for its improbability, and that is a
poor argument, since history is full of the improbable.

Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter
That Saved Greece – and Western Civilization

In Parks's defense, he had extraordinary powers of observation. He was completely at home in a non-white setting, from years spent in Alaska among Native Americans. Parks had doubtless grown up with family stories of the Underground Railroad and could have been attuned to clues that eluded most other southern whites of the time. (Although this very family background might also have made him more credulous, seeing Underground Railroad connections where perhaps there were none!)

To publish a completely fraudulent account would have entailed deceiving quite a number of colleagues, including famed Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie. Parks's academic career might not have been over had he been caught, but it would have done it no good either. All this seems dramatically out of character for Parks.

But when I asked his granddaughter specifically about whether Parks might have contacted a great-uncle, she noted dryly that he "liked to sit around and talk." My hunch is that Parks added the story about his great-uncle's confirmation in order to give his account considerable added credibility. He wouldn't be the first historian or folklorist of the late 19th and early 20th century to embellish an account. With the benefit of hindsight, any embellishment seems unnecessary. The core collection story remains a remarkable account of an interested white stranger trying to draw out understandably wary black informants during the height of the Jim Crow era in the South.

Luckily for anyone trying to make sense of this song's history, there are two other possible sources, Lee Hays and Randy Sparks. And one likely detour!

Lee Hays

As for me, I figure the song was wending its way through (the) 'folk process', passed through Lee's door for a night and a good meal and then went on its way.

Fred Hellerman of The Weavers, personal communication.

This version collected ca. 1920, supplemented with lyrics from the Parks version, most likely sourced from the 1934 Lomax book. Published in 1947 and first recorded in 1951.

Follow the Drinking Gourd arranger Lee HaysIn 1947, Lee Hays published an arrangement of Drinking Gourd in the People's Songs Bulletin, where he wrote a monthly column. Hays is best known as a member of both the Almanac Singers and the Weavers.

According to the notes to a Weavers recording, while a child Hays "used to visit Negro churches and sit in the back pew, and he used to visit the homes of Negro farmers, soaking up the richest musical sounds and harmonies that have ever come our way."

He may also have heard black music at home. In an undated letter to Pete Seeger, Hays says he learned parts of the song from his elderly black "nurse", Aunty Laura, while a child. According to 1920 census records, Lee Hays was six years old and living in Forrest City, Arkansas – that's about 150 miles due west from the source of the Tombigbee. Pete Seeger wrote me that the melody came from Aunty Laura, while the lyrics originally came from anthologies – most likely the Parks version reprinted in a Lomax songbook in 1934 (see here.) I'll note in passing that Hays never mentioned Aunty Laura to his biographer, Doris Willens, and she cautioned me that Hays was a "fabulist."

Hays assigned a previously unknown provenance to the song, holding that it derived from a camp revival hymn, Follow the Risen Lord. While he did research some of the Weavers repertory, most notably Wimoweh, I found nothing in his papers at the Smithsonian describing where this information on the Drinking Gourd might have originated. Separately, I have not been able to find any trace of Follow the Risen Lord. And the original melodic fragment in the Parks article doesn't follow hymn structure – instead it suggests the African-American folk songs of that time.

Hays also claimed that the song conveys much more information than seems possible in the version passed down to us. His introduction to one performance asserts that the song, "told the slaves...when to go, what rivers to follow, what mountains to pass over, what turnings to make, who to ask for..." (Listen)►

Hays wrote that a song is "firstly and mostly poetry." In the service of poetry and progressive politics, Hays polished and reworked the song, making significant changes to the lyrics and possibly the melody, too.

Randy Sparks / John Woodum

I never heard such a song as Drinkin' Gourd before.

Randy Sparks

This version collected in 1955 (Shreveport, Louisiana); recorded in 1963.

In the fall of 1955, singer Randy Sparks was appearing in Shreveport, Louisiana. During that engagement he heard a black street singer in his seventies named John Woodum perform a version of the song. Sparks reported, "I never heard such a song as Drinkin' Gourd before."

The lyrics Woodum sang were substantially different from either the Parks or the Hays versions. The two earlier versions encode a map. The Woodum version is inspirational – urging an escape – but contains absolutely no geographic information. Woodum was the first known artist to use the lines, "Think I heard the angels say, Stars in the heaven gonna show you the way" in the Drinking Gourd song.

I have not been able to learn anything about Woodum in the census, Social Security Death Index, or anywhere else. We are left to speculate how he originally learned the song.

Carl Carmer – a likely detour?

In 1942, Carl Carmer published a version of the song in his book, America Sings, oriented towards a children's audience. Carmer spent six years in Alabama, so this might be an important variant collected from the field. I think instead that it is a version of the Parks song which Carmer simplified for his juvenile audience.

Mary (Hunter) Austin – earliest reference of all?

The author Mary (Hunter) Austin (1868-1934) writes in her autobiography Earth Horizon (published 1932) that as a girl of five or six (ca. 1873), she heard a black man sing, "Foller de drinkin’-gou'd!" in her hometown of Carlinville, Illinois. It was sung by Moses Drakeford, who had been the town's sole "colored man" in the pre-war period. (4) This is by far the earliest reference to the song I've uncovered. It's hard to know whether to trust this very early, very fragmentary memory.

It's also very interesting (and puzzling?) that H.B. Parks' hometown was also Carlinville. His mother Sarah Cowdrey Braley was born there in early 1850. Austin and Parks both went to the local Blackburn College (she graduated in 1888; he entered the Blackburn prep school five years later.) Carlinville is just 2.4 square miles. "In 1853 the population was 790.  In 1879 the population approximates closely to 5,000 souls."  (1879 Macoupin Co. history, page 86.)  This tiny town certainly looms quite large in the song's history! 

I've included a summary of Census and other vital information on Moses W. Drakeford in the Notes. (5)


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