folk songs as code

The Negro folk song was an antecedent of the blues. Its lyrics were sometimes coded instructions for black slaves escaping from Southern plantations via the Underground Railway. One example of this type of folk song disguised as Black code for escape was “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” This song, dating back to the 1830s, was actually a road map for how to get to Kentucky and then to freedom. Part of the lyrics, which many white people thought was just a spiritual, made references to landmarks along the way from Alabama northward.

 “When the sun comes back, 
and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd,
The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd.” 

 “Where the little river 
Meets the great big one, 
The old man waits—
Follow the drinking gourd.”

The “drinking gourd” is not just a hollowed out gourd for drinking water but the Big Dipper constellation, pointing the way north. A returning sun and quail calls recall spring, the best time to run. The “old man” refers to “Commander” Peg Leg Joe, an operative of the railway. It is said that Joe would leave his mark, a left foot and a small circle (for the peg), on dead trees along the route, to guide runaways. The rivers mentioned are the Tombigbee and the Ohio. Where they merge in Peducah, Kentucky was allegedly the staging place for escaping slaves to follow the Underground Railway to freedom in either New England or Canada.

Some scholars, such as James B. Kelly, question the authenticity of the song’s lyrics. He claims the song is an interpolation and not an interpretation. The song content was researched by H.D. Parks in the 1910s and was recorded for the first time in 1928 by the Texas Folklore Society. Parks admitted that he pulled the lyrics from memories of people who could not verify from where the words had actually been derived. Other scholars point out that the song has been re-recorded by so many different singers and groups that its original meaning has become somewhat diluted, or even lost. In fact, historical records show that most of the escaping plantation slaves did not go north at all, but fled instead to large southern cities or to Caribbean destinations.

None of this criticism, however, can diminish the historical importance of the Drinking Gourd song. The website states: “In the ensuing 80 years [since 1928], the Drinking Gourd played an important role in the Civil Rights and folk revival movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and in contemporary elementary school education. Much of the Drinking Gourd’s enduring appeal derives from its perceived status as a unique, historical remnant harkening back to the pre-Civil War South – no other such map songs survive.” 

In addition to Negro folk songs were Negro spirituals, which formed the bedrock for the blues that followed. Some of these compositions were also coded language for resistance and escape. Examples include “Canaan, Oh Canaan,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” “Wade in the Water” and “I Got My Ticket.” One of the most performed escapist songs of the slavery period was “Go Down Moses,” with its lyrics about an oppressed people being led out of bondage. Frederick Douglass, perhaps the nineteenth century’s most famous abolitionist author and former slave, wrote about singing spirituals in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.” (Library of Congress article)

For white churchgoers of the time, “Wade in the Water” was a call to baptism, but black slaves interpreted the meaning of the song differently. To them, the lyrics were advice to wade in the rivers to throw the bloodhounds off the scent of their trails as they escaped. 

Slave owners were not entirely in the dark about such coded language, however. Escape was one worry to them, but the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 to allow slaveowners to legally recapture runaway slaves in other states. On the other hand, an armed slave revolt was one of Southern plantation owners’ greatest fears during the antebellum period. They had heard of the 1831 rebellion in Virginia, led by a slave named Nat Turner, in which 51 white people had been massacred. Slaveowners were determined to prevent a repeat.

Southern slaveowners even had an edited version of the King James version of the Bible called the “Slave Bible,” which had any descriptions of escape from bondage or similar notions deleted. Originally published in London in 1807 for the use of British missionaries in the Caribbean, this bible also removed most of the Old Testament, especially the Exodus section, but retained the parts commanding slaves to respect their masters. Other remaining passages were about the maintenance of the slavery system and slave obedience. Is it any wonder, then, that some Confederate soldiers went into battle waving Slave Bibles above their heads?

Only three copies of the Slave Bible still remain; one is on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

Follow the Drinking Gourd

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