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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History

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Interpretation Over the
Last Twenty Years

Planetarium Show and Supporting MaterialsFollow the Drinking Gourd, Jeanette Winter, 1988

In 1988, author Jeanette Winter turned the song into a well-received children's book. In 1995, this book formed the narrative core of a planetarium show co-produced by the New Jersey State Museum Planetarium and the Raritan Valley Community College Planetarium. It told the Jeanette Winter story and added considerable additional material on astronomy and interpreting the song.

The show was quite popular and is still shown regularly around the country in February for Black History month. More importantly for our purposes, the sponsoring Planetaria published an Educator's Guide by the show's producer, Gloria Rall. In the Fall of 1998 the Madison Wisconsin Metropolitan School District hosted a web version of the Educator's Guide. The Madison site meticulously credited the source of its content, but most other subsequent web versions did not. The print Guide thus provided the core content for the song's interpretation on dozens if not hundreds of websites.

Problems

Unfortunately, the print Guide (and most references derived from it) get a lot of things wrong. They do not recognize Lee Hays's role in rewriting the song, and therefore that the lyrics used in the Guide could not have been sung by slaves. To take just one other example, here are the lyrics of the first verse (as originally published in 1928):

When the sun come back,
When the firs' quail call,
Then the time is come
Foller the drinkin' gou'd.

This verse was interpreted by Parks and all other commentators as urging escapees to leave in the spring. The Educator's Guide suggested it means that escapees should leave in the winter. Here's why.

According to the Guide, "when the firs' quail call" means the winter, when migratory quail return from the north and their call would have been heard by slaves. The Guide goes on to explain that the straight line distance from Mobile, Alabama to the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers is 800 miles and that escaping slaves would need a year to travel that far. And last, that this would put them at the Ohio the following winter, when the river would be frozen and therefore easier to cross. Taking all these factors together, according to the Guide, the Underground Railroad suggested a winter escape.

NASA's website states (without attribution!): "The Railroad struggled with the problem of how to get escapees across, and with experience, came to believe the best crossing time was winter. Then the river was frozen, and escapees could walk across on the ice. Since it took most escapees a year to travel from the South to the Ohio, the Railroad urged slaves to start their trip in winter in order to be at the Ohio the next winter."

RebuttalBobwhite Quail

Here's the rub. First, American quail are not migratory (1) They don't return to Alabama from the north, but stay in the region year-round. They start calling to each other at the start of the spring breeding season in early to mid-April, not in the winter after returning from an imaginary migration.

Second, the straight line distance from Mobile to Paducah is 440 miles, not 800.

Third, the estimate of a year's travel time is drawn from the testimony of exactly one slave. (I examine how this one account somehow came to stand for all slaves escaping northward from the Deep South here.)

Fourth, we know that the Ohio did not freeze every winter.

Fifth, the Guide makes it sound as if the Underground Railroad had a Board of Directors meeting, decided on the best time of the year for slaves to escape, and then put an action plan in place. Of course, the Underground Railroad did not function that way.

Last, we know that slaves escaped year round, based more on the opportunity than the season. (2)

Impact of the Educator's Guide

In the absence of almost any other research into the Drinking Gourd song and a high level of interest the Educator's Guide and web versions quoting or paraphrasing it filled a void. Quotations from the Guide and rewrites of its contents appear not only in NASA's website but also on many others originating from Maine to Singapore. Material from the Guide has found its way into books, and is incorporated into the song's interpretation at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. And virtually none of these websites and references indicate that their lyrics date from the mid-20th century.

Notes

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Copyright 2008, Joel Bresler.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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