Underground Railroad Research Forum
Follow the Drinking Gourd
This monument on the banks of the Warrior River commemorates the 1834 construction of a bridge by a slave named Horace King. Authors of a new book say King was not involved in the project.
SOUTHERN LIGHTS: Rewriting the history of the South
By Ben Windham
If there is such a thing as a sacrosanct American folk song, it’s “Follow the Drinking Gourd." And it’s easy to see why.
I grew up learning that it was actually a blueprint for the Underground Railroad. A runaway slave who read between the lines would find a road map out of the South:
When the sun comes back and the first quail calls
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a-waiting to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd
The drinking gourd, we were taught, is actually the Big Dipper, with its north star, Polaris, shining as a beacon toward freedom.
History, mystery and feel-good political correctness, with a strong dose of Southern seasoning, all rolled into a single, tuneful song. Who could resist?
If you accept folklorist H.H. Parks’ 1928 essay that introduced the song to Americans, “Follow the Drinking Gourd" has special significance to West Alabama. Parks wrote that the song’s coded lyrical path to freedom begins north of Mobile and follows the Tombigee River.
From there, he said, it leads to the river’s headwaters, then “over the divide and down the Tennessee River to the Ohio."
Parks wrote that a member of his family who had been involved in the underground railroad movement remembered a one-legged sailor “known as Peg Leg Joe" who “would go through the country north of Mobile and teach this song to young slaves and show them a mark of his natural left foot and the round spot made by the peg-leg."
Then Joe would chart the route north on trees using charcoal or mud to make the sign of a left foot and a round peg.
Again, it’s irresistible stuff. Except that the whole story is probably a romantic fabrication.
That’s the judgment of a new breed of scholars who challenge the authenticity of both the song and Parks’ story. And their case is pretty convincing.
For one thing, nobody has turned up documentary evidence of any Peg-Leg Joe. The idea of a Yankee songmeister stomping the rough Tombigbee bottomlands to teach slaves a subversive tune is fairly ludicrous anyway.
Too, Parks claimed he collected the song in North Carolina, Louisville and Texas. Any song with such a widespread propagation, the modern critics say, should have been on the lips of as many rural singers as “John Henry" or “Barbara Allen" and collected widely.
Yet the only place it turns up is in Parks’ essay. There’s nothing like it in any other vintage folk-song collection or field recording. Nothing even close.
One other thing, the critics note: Slaves didn’t need a coded song to tell them to go north toward freedom. That was a fact of life.
That’s the thing about these critics and scholars, always punching holes in our balloons. At the same time that “Drinking Gourd" is being demythologized, something similar is happing with a cherished Tuscaloosa story.
On the south bank of the Black Warrior River, a stone’s throw from Tuscaloosa Chevrolet, a prominent historic marker tells us that a slave named Horace King, a remarkable man “revered and respected for his organizational abilities, building skills and personal integrity," constructed the first bridge over the river at that spot in 1834.
It’s a tremendous story, a part of local lore and most histories of this area. I drew on its message of overcoming hardship and spanning adversity for a column last year.
Only thing is, it never happened.
That’s the verdict of historians John S. Lupold and Thomas L. French Jr. in their new book, “Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King," published last month by the University of Georgia Press.
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( Horace King is a GGG Grandfather I research)