Follow the Drinking Gourd:
Adult Books and Stage Play
Frances Gaither, Follow the Drinking Gourd, Macmillan: New York, 1940.
SPOILER ALERT: Many "plot spoilers" in this section. Stop now if you would rather not read them!
PART I. John Austen is the proprietor of Hickory Vale in Georgia. His land failing, Austen purchases virgin property in Alabama. The overseer, Newsom, brings Austen's slaves and livestock overland to Hurricane. Austen is portrayed as a benevolent owner, "Don't forget we have to raise plenty of corn and pork, too, Newsom."..."These boys are like members of my family."
Soon after Austen returns to Georgia the first of Hurricane's many disasters strikes – a week of rain that beats the corn down flat and washes up the cotton. The crops recover somewhat, but set a pattern by yielding less than is necessary to meet the mortgage. Newsom takes the young slave woman Juno as his servant.
PART II. John Austen is dead. We learn in a flashback that Juno was found to be pregnant and later dies while giving birth to Newsom's premature child. After Newsom is fired, the new overseer drives the slaves hard; food crops are neglected in favor of the cotton cash crop. We meet the young slave Poldo – very smart and excellent with figures.
For the first time, slaves are whipped for not working hard enough. A huge storm lays waste the plantation. After the storm's destruction, the overseer is a changed man, "The rain-wet bales, which might yet have fetched a fair price if promptly opened and dried, were left to mildew and rot." Food is very short. The slaves learn that their plantation is sunk deeply in debt and they are at risk of being sold. John Austen's son Robert takes up residence, "Standing among his people he was smiling, almost gay." The local Squire attempts to compliments him, "It certainly warms my heart to see how you handle them, son. Your manner with them is perfect; easy as an old glove." The comments sit badly with Robert, who had thought prior to his arrival to emancipate his slaves.
After a confrontation, the overseer leaves. The slaves work devoutly for Robert and broach the idea of carrying on without an overseer. The creditors don't agree. Robert weeps when they later seize a slave couple and three of their children.
Cholera strikes neighboring plantations. The slaves start dying. Robert ministers to Poldo, then takes ill himself and dies suddenly.
PART III. Hurricane is in disarray. Having passed out of the family, it is now run for the benefit of the bank. A new overseer rejuvenates the plantation. Poldo is his right-hand man, but his father warns him on his death bed to be humble, that his status could change in an instant.
Peg Leg Joe, a journeyman carpenter, arrives to help build a new house for the overseer and his fiancée. Joe confides to Poldo that he is an Underground Railroad agent. Joe transmits detailed directions and promises to leave his "mark" along the route. Realizing he has given Joe his best hands to help build the house, Poldo fears for Hurricane. He overhears the hands singing the Drinking Gourd song, at first making out only the melody but not the words.
Poldo's wife Mary (Newsom) is carrying on with a free black. She is pregnant, and it's not certain who the father might be. Mary's paramour buys her out of slavery and spirits her away on his ship. Five runaways escape en masse from Hurricane. Poldo's relationship with the overseer is at risk, and the overseer's wife accuses Poldo of knowing more than he admits.
Poldo prepares to leave, as if in a dream. En route, as Poldo stared at Joe's "painted sign, he began to hear, word by word, names of rivers, names of places, names of stars...The Tombigbee is a plain road all the way to north Alabama. From there it's only a stone's throw to the Tennessee. And the Tennessee's another clear road to follow." He also has Joe's directions on how to link up with the Underground Railroad. At one ford, a raft awaits him, had Joe left it? "A word shaped itself in Poldo's mind and found its way to his tongue. 'Free.'"
Use of the Drinking Gourd song
The book quotes the first verse of the Parks lyrics on the title page, rendered in standard English. An Author's Note precedes Part I:
Various elements from the song and the Parks account describing it are woven into the novel. For example, looming overhead "...swung the Great Dipper – the Drinking Gourd, as the Children and Negroes called it." Both master and slave know that the first quail calling signifies the spring, here tied to plowing time.
Peg Leg Joe is a journeyman carpenter. He transmits detailed directions and promises to leave his "mark" along the route. He also tells prospective escapees how to link up with the Underground Railroad. A conspiring group of slaves "had a song, made up among themselves or taught to them by the visiting carpenter, which...they took particular pains to keep secret." (p. 228.) Slaves describe the Drinking Gourd as "a bad-luck song do white folks hear it." (p. 233) This echoes the Parks account describing the first time he collected the song. (Details here.)
Frances Gaither, (1899-1955) was born in Somerville, Tennessee. One of her grandfathers hailed from Maine; the other owned slaves on a plantation in Tennessee. "Gaither attributed her deep concern with the plight of Negroes, at least in part, to this mixture of 'raw Yankee and slaveholding Southern.'" (Ronald L. Davis in Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967, pp. 186-187) Several of her novels dealt with the South in a manner that struck reviewers of the time as refreshing. In fact, it's clear that in some quarters this book was seen as the antithesis to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936 and brought to the screen in 1939. "Improbable as it seems, a novel has been written about the pre-Civil War South without crinolines or mammies." (see Reviews, below). Also noticeably absent were "juleps, white columns, coquettes in frilly dresses and contented darkies singing in the cotton fields." (Davis, ibid.)
The novel received three laudatory review in the New York Times, and four other mentions. This level of coverage was doubtless due to the quality of the writing, to its positioning with respect to Gone With the Wind, and perhaps in some small measure to husband Rice Gaither's staff position at the Sunday New York Times!
The book was re-issued in paperback in 1968 with a cover that promised "The searing emotions of love and death in the slave south". The lurid illustration stood in marked contrast to the reviewer's blurb, "Moving and true". (For the record, there are no black man/white woman relationships in the novel.)
Contemporary reviewers noted, "This plantation...is none we have seen before in fiction." That's certainly true, and the writing is excellent. Still, today the book does not seem as revelatory as it must have to its 1940s readers. Nowadays the owners appear idealized and paternalistic ("These boys are like members of my family.") and the slaves unduly subservient ("They're the most willing, obedient set I ever saw when they're handled right [page 89.])
Herschel Brickell, "Caste and Class in the Old South", New York Times, March 6, 1949, p. BR5.
Thomas C. Linn, "Books of the Times", March 12, 1940, p. 29
Margaret Wallace, "On an Alabama Cotton Plantation", New York Times, March 17, 1940, p. 92.
The other four mentions in the New York Times:
"Notes on Books and Authors, Forthcoming Books", February 11, 1940, p. 98
Otis W. Coan and Richard G. Lillard, America in Fiction, 4th
Honorable mention, Best Book by a Southern Author, Southern Women's National Democratic Organization, January 26, 1941, p. 30.
The Drinking Gourd
Les blancs: the collected last plays of Lorraine Hansberry.
New York: Random House, 1972
Black theater, U.S.A.: forty-five plays by Black Americans,
1847-1974. Part 6-12
Readings from The journey (Audio recording; includes two
scenes from The Drinking Gourd)
SPOILER ALERT: Many "plot spoilers" in this section. Stop now if you would rather not read them!
ACT I opens with an establishing scene: dinner in the slave quarters. We meet the old servant Rissa and Sarah, her son Hannibal's love interest. A scene in the moonlit woods follows between Sarah and Hannibal. It introduces the Drinking Gourd (Big Dipper) star formation, and the Drinking Gourd song.
The proprietor of the plantation, Hiram Sweet, and his son Everett meet with their friend Dr. Bullett. Hiram is in bad health, and Everett chafes at father's continued oversight. Growing cotton has worn out the land, and the two argue about whether nine and one-half hours work per day is enough for the help. The Sweet plantation is "A resort for slaves", according to Everett, while his father takes a decidedly more paternalistic position. Doctor Bullett urges that Hiram give up all work in the fields, for the sake of his health. Hiram muses about whether owning slaves is a sin.
Rissa has heard the whole exchange from the kitchen. She has irked Hiram, on the doctor's orders, by withholding salt from his food. Hiram recaps the humble origins of the farm (Rissa was one of the first slaves) and reiterates his promise to make Hannibal a house servant. The scene is one of genial domesticity. The act closes with Hiram thundering about his position, "...I am master of this plantation and every soul on it."
ACT II. Hiram's wife Maria tells her son Everett that he must run the plantation. His take-over must be engineered subtly, leaving his father to believe that he is still in charge.
We meet Zeb, a dirt-poor white, as he is being counseled by a Preacher. The Preacher opines, "Seems to me three things the South sends out more than anything else. A steady stream of cotton, runaway slaves and poor white folks. I guess the last two is pretty much lookin' for the same thing and they both runnin' from the first." He cautions Zeb about driving slaves for the likes of the Sweet family, "Them people hate our kind."
The slaves sing a play song that includes lyrics about poisoning the masters. The driver Coffin, an unpleasant toady, interrupts the scene. Rissa relates to Hannibal the offer of a house servant position. He is not interested, wanting only to escape. He demonstrates that he can read, and Rissa is truly terrified – slaves learned to read and write at great peril.
As the new overseer, Zeb lays down the law to the slaves, then whips Hannibal in the face. Coffin later reveals that Hannibal has slipped away to be with Everett's younger brother, Tommy. Tipped off by Coffin, Everett and Zeb surprise them. Hannibal is teaching Tommy the banjo and Tommy is teaching Hannibal to read and write. Hannibal has written a composition about the Drinking Gourd. In a fury, Everett orders Zeb to blind Hannibal. (See here for comments.)
ACT III. An enraged Hiram has learned about the awful deed. He dresses down his son and orders Zeb off the plantation. Bullett arrives with news of the barrage at Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War. Hiram offers a toast to the end of the Southern way of life. He visits Rissa in her quarters as she tends to Hannibal. He says plaintively that he had nothing to do with the blinding (in contrast to his speech at the end of Act I.) She spits back, "Why? Ain't you Marster?" and turns away from him. He leaves the cabin and collapses outside, within earshot, crying out for help. Rissa ignores him.
In the final scenes, Everett appears dressed as a Confederate Officer, while Maria is in mourning clothes. Zeb will run the plantation in Everett's absence. Wordlessly, Rissa takes Hiram's gun and gives it to Sarah, who prepares to lead Hannibal and his nephew Isaiah in flight. Follow the Drinking Gourd is sung as the slaves flee. The final thoughts of the play belong to a soldier, intoning that he must fight to hold the Union together. Slavery has already cost the nation "too much of our soul."
Use of the Drinking Gourd song
The Drinking Gourd song is introduced early in the first act. The young slave Hannibal sings the chorus to his sweetheart Sarah in moonlit woods. The play uses the Weavers' version of the song (including the "Follow–follow–follow" improvisation added by Ronnie Gilbert.)
The Drinking Gourd is the subject of a composition written by Hannibal at the end of Act II. The song is also sung near the end of the play when Hannibal, Sarah and Hannibal's nephew escape the plantation.
Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1930. Her family settled in a white area when she was eight, and were received hostilely by much of the neighborhood. Her parents took a housing discrimination case to the US Supreme Court. The deeply felt family lore resulting from that experience provided some of the background for A Raisin in the Sun. Opening in 1959, it won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play of the year.
Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff in 1953. They separated in 1957 and divorced in 1964. Tragically, she died from cancer in New York City in 1965.
Well-known producer/director Dore Schary planned a series of five ninety-minute television dramas on the NBC network marking the centennial of the Civil War. He commissioned the lead-off drama from Hansberry in 1959, telling the playwright that her portrait of slavery could be "As frank as it needs to be."
Schary recounts how he told network executives that he had engaged the winner of the Drama Critics' Circle Award to write a screenplay addressing slavery. One executive asked, "What's her point of view about it–slavery?" Schary thought he was kidding and answered, deadpan, "She's against it." Nobody laughed, and Schary later wrote, "...from that moment I knew we were dead."
Hansberry steeped herself in research and submitted the Drinking Gourd teleplay in 1960. The script included the song and scenes based on it, while dealing with the corrosive effects of slavery. Her viewpoint was clear, "...it is difficult for the American mind to adjust to the realization that the Rhetts and Scarletts were as much monsters as the keepers of Buchenwald–they just dressed more attractively and their accents are softer."
Even though NBC programming vice president David Levy termed it a superb script, it never aired. Nemiroff thought the script was doomed not because of its frankness but rather its fairness to the white characters. He also suggested that the Rissa's character violated a cherished American myth: the Black Mammy figure. (See Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays, pp. 152-155.)
I find Nemiroff's arguments unconvincing. In 1965, he tried again to get the show aired. An executive producer of the Hallmark Playhouse wrote The Drinking Gourd was "a beautiful script...but frankly...not the sort of thing the sponsor is looking for. Hallmark is a family show and–well, you know..."
I think the Hallmark Playhouse response is closer to the truth than any concerns about the play's evenhandedness or Rissa. Blinding a character is a very powerful dramatic device (see also King Lear and Oedipus!), but extremely rough going for a prime-time television show. Moreover, while Hansberry was of course free to follow her muse, blinding slaves as a punishment for anything, including literacy, was extremely uncommon. (See here for the details.)
I also thought the play was peopled with stock types. Everett was the cocksure Southern youth, "...we can have 600,000 men in the field without even feeling it. The whole thing wouldn't have to last more than six months." Hiram was the world-weary, sage father, "A way of life is over. The end is here and we might as well drink to what it was." Maria was the iron-willed plantation mistress, admonishing her son, "...I have clearly asked you to be a very strong man. Which is the only kind I have ever been able to truly love." Zeb was the trashy white overseer, Hannibal was the headstrong young slave, Coffin was the elderly, toady servant, "I tries to be a good driver for Marster and (Hannibal's) the kind what makes it hard for me." Only Rissa present a unique, fully-rounded character. (And possibly the Preacher, in a much smaller role.) Of course, we are now nearly 50 years on. Perhaps the characters would have seemed fresher to the audience of its day.
The network shelved both the teleplay and the series. In 1967, on the second anniversary of Hansberry's death, WBAI in New York City broadcast a two-part program, Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. The show included two scenes from The Drinking Gourd, and one was later also used in To Be Young, Gifted and Black (see below.)
According to A History of African American Theatre, the script was staged in 1974 at the Harlem Community Center for the Arts, with several subsequent college and community productions. The play was more recently adapted and staged by Tisch Jones at the University of Northern Iowa in 1995.
Use of the Play in To Be Young, Gifted and Black
Hansberry's To Be Young, Gifted and Black, adapted by Nemiroff from her writings, was produced Off-Broadway in 1969. It also appeared in book form the next year. The Drinking Gourd contributes a short soliloquy by Zeb, about driving slaves for the Sweets, "and this time next year, Zeb Dudley aims to own himself some slaves and be a man–you hear!" The moonlit scene between Hannibal and Sarah introducing the Drinking Gourd (Big Dipper) star formation, and the Drinking Gourd song appears. There is a sardonic discussion of the play's fate at a symposium with James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and others, followed directly by the scene of Tommy Sweet teaching Hannibal to read and write and Hannibal's blinding at the hands of Zeb Dudley.
Lee Hays, Bend to the Dying Lad (Unpublished)
Bend to the Dying Lad, A Story About Walt Whitman. Lee Hays, 1950. An unpublished novella based on Follow the Drinking Gourd.
"In the novella, Hays depicts Walt Whitman in the poet's days as a hospital attendant nursing wounded soldiers from the Civil War. The tune to 'Follow the Risen Lord,' appears in the novella as one which was sung separately by two estranged brothers raised on the same Southern plantation who left to fight on different sides of the war. Both wounded and being treated in the same hospital (but unknown to one another, at the time), they sing the song to Lee Hays' fictionalized Walt Whitman, who is able to reunite the two before they die." (Sing Out, Warning! Sing Out, Love: The Writings of Lee Hays, Robert S. Koppelman, University of Massachusetts Press, 2004) (1)
Copyright 2008 - 2012, Joel Bresler.