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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History



Additional Materials for Teachers

I just feel fortunate to live in a world with so much disinformation at my fingertips.

P. C. Vey, in a New Yorker cartoon

(Note: This page supplements information found in the Teachers' Guide appendix. If you came directly to this page from a search engine, web or email link, please consider starting here.)

Double Coding Songs (All Grade Levels)

"Double coding" describes what happens when master and slave sing the same song text (typically spiritual in nature) but each ascribes to it a very different meaning. There are many well-documented cases of double coding in the antebellum South. The song "We'll Soon Be Free" includes the verse, "The Lord will call us home." As a drummer boy explained to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, when slaves came to that verse, "Dey tink de Lord mean for say de Yankees"  (Song XXXIV here.) Frederick Douglass writes about the practice in "My Bondage and My Freedom." (1)  According to Sarah H. Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (pp. 17-19), Tubman sang "such a farewell as she might to the friends and relations on the plantation...the uninitiated knew not the hidden meaning of the words,

When dat ar ole chariot comes,
I'm gwine to lebe you;
I'm boun' for de promised land,
I'm gwine to lebe you."

Bradford, as was her habit, has embroidered her description of this incident. Tubman was not relying on a pre-existing code all her listeners were "uninitiated." None had any foreknowledge of this double coding. She hoped that her friends and family "would remember the song she sang and figure out later that she was attempting to tell them she was leaving them. The last thing she wanted to do at the time was to let everyone know she was fleeing!" (Historian Kate Larson, personal communication.)

Underground Railroad Signal Songs (All Grade Levels)

We go astray when researchers and publishers assert that these songs were used extensively as Underground Railroad signal songs. Some were used in this fashion. According to Samuel Hopkins, who knew her personally, Tubman supposedly sang "'A song of peace.' Dat mean all well." and when it wasn't safe "Den I sing 'Moses' ["Go Down, Moses"] Dat mean dangah, hide yo'self." (Samuel Hopkins Adams, Grandfather Stories, p. 274.)

But most escaping slaves never met an Underground Railroad conductor until they made it to free territory. And of the three possible meanings (standard, subtext and Underground Railroad) the last one was by far the least common and least likely to be known to the larger slave population. So if you read on the web or elsewhere that slaves singing "Go Down, Moses" were thinking of Harriet Tubman, please consider this: at the start of the Civil War there were nearly four million slaves, and Harriet Tubman (to her everlasting credit!) rescued about 70 of them. There is no reason to believe her reputation extended beyond Maryland's Eastern Shore, let alone to the Deep South. (2) Slaves sang spirituals for their spiritual messages.

Elementary and Middle School

Evaluating Currently Available Materials

First, there simply is no substitute for using your own informed, skeptical judgment when reviewing Drinking Gourd lesson plans, or the Educator's Guide or other websites  including this one! You are your students' first line of defense against the ubiquitous disinformation jokingly mentioned in the New Yorker cartoon above. In the course of my research I got an insightful email from Maryellen Lambert, a sixth grade student teacher in Fairbanks, Alaska. She wondered why Drinking Gourd song commentaries were repeated, verbatim, on so many different websites. (See here for an example.) This led her, quite understandably, to question the contents on these sites.

In my assessment, much of the material about the song offered to teachers is based on suspect research, which is then watered down still further. For example, an article by Gloria Rall aimed at the Planetarium community that ran in Planetarian says, "We can only begin to imagine how many (slaves) used the route described in this song. It may have been a very large number." Her script for the popular Follow the Drinking Gourd Planetarium show sweeps away any doubts, "Using this song, thousands of slaves escaped north to Canada, to freedom." (Please see here for my analysis of this claim.)

That same Planetarian article reads, "The Ohio is too wide and swift for most swimmers..." This may or may not be the case (see [3]), but online versions of the Educator's Guide, which is what most teachers could easily access, stated: "Most escapees had to cross the Ohio River which is too wide and too swift to swim."

Some escapees certainly did swim across the Ohio. One of the enduring legends about the Underground Railroad is how it got its name: supposedly, a slave named Tice Davids swam across the Ohio, eluded his master, and (with the likely help of the residents of Ripley, Ohio) instantly disappeared from sight. "The master eventually gave up and said the 'nigger must have gone off on an underground road.'" (4)

High School

Here are some possible study questions.

H.B. Parks wrote that he heard the song:

"sung by a little negro boy". The boy's old grandfather caned him and told him "not to sing that song again. This excited my curiosity and I asked the old man why he did not want the boy to sing the song. The only answer I could get was that it was bad luck."

The following year, Parks was in Louisville and heard:

"a negro fisherman, who was seated on the edge of the wharf, singing the same stanza on the same tune"..."When I asked the fisherman what he knew about the song, he replied that he knew nothing about it; he would not even converse with me. This seemed to be very peculiar, but because of the story of bad luck told by the grandfather in North Carolina I did not question the negro further."

What does the H.B. Parks collection story teach us about black/white relations in the Jim Crow South?

Why were the Lee Hays lyrics so readily accepted as "traditional?"  (They don't sound like vernacular black speech of the 19th century.) 

Why has the line, "The old man is awaitin' for to carry you to freedom" been reprinted hundreds of time without comment in a song universally described as "encoded"?

Why were the interpretations offered in the Parks article 80 years ago and the Educator's Guide 12 years ago accepted so widely and uncritically? What does that tell us about research in general and Web-based research specifically?


Suggestions for Students researching American Legends

Use genealogy, census, primary and "non-traditional" sources
      Look beyond books, periodicals and web searches or you will miss a lot
If you are successful everywhere you look, you are not looking in enough places.
      "Aha!" moments are few and far between
Almost anyone is approachable in this electronic age
Pick a topic you are passionate about
Tell a great story!
Have fun!


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