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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History


Cultural History

1934 to 1947

The song did not initially make a big impression. It was reprinted in 1934 in American Ballads and Folk Songs by John A. and Alan Lomax. It inspired a well-received novel of the same name by the southern writer, Frances Gaither, in 1940. But there were no recordings, even though the Lomax book was well-known to the folk music community. Perhaps this is owing to the Parks version his granddaughter told me he was very unmusical. Parks described the song as a "jerky chant" and sang it as best he could to a musicologist who transcribed it for publication.

Follow the Drinking Gourd musical fragment

Musical fragment in the original 1928 article

The original song fragment has never been recorded. The version that comes closest was sung by Leon Bibb in 1962 and released decades later in Harry Belafonte's set, "The Long Road to Freedom." (Listen)►

Turning back to the Lee Hays arrangement, he took the melodic snippet in the Parks article and turned it into a full-blown song. His new lyrics were considerably more literary than the original vernacular version. He also changed the line, "The ole man waits" to the much more overt "The old man is awaitin' for to carry you to freedom." The chorus now conformed to the Underground Railroad mythology of the time, where whites played a pre-eminent role and slave initiative counted for a distant second. Today one could argue that slaves who made it to and past the Ohio had already carried themselves to freedom and didn't need an old man to do it for them.

In perhaps the ultimate compliment, the words were almost immediately presumed to be "traditional" and over a century old. For example, the Hays lyrics are placed in pre-Civil War settings in all three children's books inspired by the song even though these lines simply could not have been sung as depicted because they had not yet been written!

1949 to 1958

Folklorist B.A. Botkin included the song in his 1949 Treasury of Southern Folklore. It's very possible that later confusion about Drinking Gourd traces back to this book. Botkin reprinted the entire Parks article, but he stripped out most of the original lyrics and all of the music. Botkin then appended the Hays arrangement both lyrics and music to the bottom of the redacted Parks text. Readers who don't check a footnote could easily miss how loosely connected the two actually are.

In 1951, The Weavers released the song's first-ever recording on the Decca album Folk Songs of America and Other Lands in 45 rpm, 78 rpm and LP formats. (Listen)►

Drinking Gourd popularizers, The Weavers

The Weavers

Hays and his fellow Weavers turned a relatively obscure fragment into a powerful, enduring folk song and launched it to prominence. Their work forms the basis for virtually all subsequent printed versions and most recordings of the song.

The duo of Foster and Larue recorded the first commercial version by black artists in 1958. (Listen)►

1960s to the Present Drinking Gourd, Ramblin'

Singer Randy Sparks went on to found the popular folk group, The New Christy Minstrels. His arrangement of Woodum's version of Drinkin' Gourd was released on the Minstrel's fourth recording, Ramblin', in 1963. It too had a strong impact on later performers, many of whom adopted some Woodum lines. (Listen)►

The song flourished in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was certainly the most popular song about the Underground Railroad and became a mainstay of both the Civil Rights and the folk revival movements. For instance, it was included in a mimeographed pamphlet entitled, "Songs for the March on Washington" in August, 1963 alongside Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the wind" and Lee Hays and Pete Seeger's "Hammer song".

The song has been recorded nearly 200 different times, and reprinted in over 75 songbooks. These recordings came principally in the 1950s and 60s. Following a drop-off, the number of recordings has climbed from 1990 to the present. The same publishing pattern holds for appearances in songbooks. These songbooks overwhelmingly reprint the Hays version, and most identify the song as "traditional." For example, respected Black music researcher Eileen Southern included the Hays arrangement and lyrics in the Third Edition of The Music of Black Americans: A History, describing both as "traditional."

The song inspired an adult novel and three prominent children's books, one of which spawned a popular Planetarium show.

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Copyright 2008 -2012, Joel Bresler.