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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History


The Song as History

On Shaky Ground?

The song was almost universally taken at face value by musicians, authors and others. Peg Leg Joe was treated as a historical person, while the lyrics were considered an actual coded guide for escaping slaves. (This interpretation holds true even for the Lee Hays version, whose line, the "old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom" is not really coded at all!)

But upon close examination, as history it appears shaky on several fronts. The Planetarium show claims that thousands of slaves found their way to freedom via the Drinking Gourd route. Were that so, surely slaveholders and patrollers along the way would have noticed and promptly shut it down. Moreover, putting an entire route in a song violates two of the Underground Railroad's most fundamental tenets: its cellular structure, and its brilliantly improvisatory way of moving fugitives to safety. Any predictable Underground Railroad route would quickly become useless.

Historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger found that most slaves from the Deep South did not head north. Instead they struck out for big Southern cities, Indian territory, Mexico, the Caribbean or other avenues to freedom. They further note that the distinctive dress and language of field hands made their escape particularly difficult.

Of the one to two thousand slaves annually that made it to safety in the north, almost all came from Border States, not the Deep South. (1)

Today most historians approach the pioneering work of Professor Wilbur Siebert with caution. Still, it's worth noting that Siebert lists 22 places along Kentucky's Ohio River border where slaves passed into free states, and Paducah didn't make the list. Professor J. Blaine Hudson includes Paducah on his list of crossing points, but those at Evansville, Louisville, Cincinnati and Ripley were clearly far more important.

North of Paducah, southern Illinois had been widely settled by southerners sympathetic to slavery. Conversely, there was a tiny free black population to provide assistance and cover to runaways. As Professor Hudson notes, "this region held many dangers and little help…Illinois was not a particularly attractive escape route for Kentucky fugitives." (2)

Number of Escapees

Clearly, large numbers of slaves from the Deep South simply could not cross the Ohio at Paducah. Professor Hudson estimates 600 to 800 slaves escaped annually via Kentucky. Of these, most were originally from Kentucky and 10% to 20% were from Tennessee and points south. Let's say half of this 20% cohort came from Tennessee, a quarter came from Alabama, and a quarter came from elsewhere. This would place the number of slaves from the entire state of Alabama crossing through Kentucky each year at 40 individuals. Let's estimate that 5% of these individuals crossed at Paducah. As shown in the table below, that puts the average total number of escapees from Alabama (not just those from the Mobile area) crossing at Paducah at a not so grand total of two per year.



Total escapees from Kentucky, per year 800 J. Blaine Hudson
% of total escapees originating in Kentucky 80% "
% of total escapees from Tennessee or points south 20% "
% of total escapees from Alabama 5% Author's Estimate
Number of escapees per year from Alabama at all Kentucky crossing points 40  
% of Kentucky escapees crossing at Paducah, Kentucky 5% Author's Estimate
Escapees from Alabama crossing at Paducah, KY,
per year, GRAND TOTAL

Consider also whether the practice of marking trees makes sense. To be of any use, many, many miles, perhaps on both sides of the Tombigbee, would have to be marked. It would take countless days of dangerous work, in constantly patrolled territory.

Does it make sense for an Underground Railroad operative to put a huge amount of effort into marking the Drinking Gourd route and teaching the song to slaves at great personal risk, and then send these slaves across hundreds of miles of hostile territory, only to have them arrive at one of the least hospitable crossing points on the Ohio? And does it make sense to do all this work for such a small number of escapees?

"Fakelore" and "Processed Folk"

Folklorist Richard M. Dorson coined the term "fakelore" and defined it as "a synthetic product claiming to be authentic oral tradition but actually tailored for mass edification." Fakelore "emphasized the jolly, cute, and quaint, and contrived a picture of American folksiness wholly false to social reality." Dorson placed Botkin's regional folklore treasuries along with "Paul Bunyan books, and children's story collections" squarely in the fakelore category, and said of the Treasuries that they "shaped the general conception of American folklore to this day." And of course, it was in the Botkin treasury that the song as we know it first came to prominence.

Leaving aside complete fabrications, "fakelore" seems a harsh term for works that, however altered, still retain a folkloric basis. Professor Elliot Singer has offered a more nuanced definition for what he terms "processed folk." This manipulated folklore may be non-representative, or may have undergone extensive rewrites. These materials often dovetail with or describe "traditions" that fit the beliefs and wishes of their advocates, and these advocates often use the manipulated folklore for ideological, educational, or commercial purposes. Manipulating folklore is a common practice with a very long history indeed.

The popular version of Follow the Drinking Gourd certainly has many of these markers. The lyrics were rewritten and melody re-arranged to the point where neither are representative of the African-American tradition. And after its rewrite the song fit snugly into the desire of the Weavers and others for activist songs that drove social change.


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Copyright 2008 - 2012, Joel Bresler.