Another attribution problem

We’ve been singing “Follow the Drinking Gourd” with campers at our ecojustce day camp. But Tobi just pointed out that we may want to drop it next year. Why? Well, first of all there’s serious doubt whether it’s a traditional African American song. The most familiar form of the song (including the version found in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal) derives from the version recorded by the Weavers. This version is an arrangement by Lee Hays, first published in 1947 in “People’s Songs Bulletin”; let’s call this the Hays version. Compare the Hays version to the first published version, collected by amateur folklorist H. B. Parks between 1912 and 1918, which first appeared in print in 1928 in Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, Number VII:

The 1928 Parks version, with 11 measures and four fermata, does not conform to the conventional structure of Anglo-American folk music. The 1947 Hays version, on the other hand, has 8 measures with no fermata and a more elaborate melody in measures 5-6. You can imagine Lee Hays regularizing and developing the melody so that it better conformed to the standards of an eight-bar chorus of the Folk Revival. The Parks version, with its “irregular” structure, feels more like something that could have been collected in the field from a singer who had no training in conventional Western music theory. (And I admit my personal preference: I like its lonesome sound much better than what I consider to be the sanitized sound of the Hays version.)

But what about Parks’s version? How authentic is it? Here’s how Parks describes first hearing this song (reprinted: H. B. Parks, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” The Best of Texas Folk and Folklore, 1916-1954, ed. Mody Coggin Boatright, Wilson Mathis Hudson, and Allen Maxwell [Univ. of North Texas Press / Texas Folklore Society, 1998], pp. 159-162):

“I was a resident of Hot Springs, North Carolina, during the year of 1912 and had charge of the agricultural work of a large industrial school. This school owned a considerable herd of cattle, which were kept in the meadues on the tops of the Big Rich Mountains on the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee. One day while riding through the mountains looking after this stock, I heard the following stanza sung by a little Negro [sic] boy, who was picking up dry sticks of wood near a Negro cabin:

“‘Foller the drinkin’ gou’d,
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d;
No one know, the wise man say,
“Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.”‘

“It is very doubtful if this part of the song would have attracted anyone’s attention had not the old grandfather, who had been sitting on a block of wood in front of the cabin, slowly got up and, taking his cane, given the boy a sound lick across the back with the admonition 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.”

Then, according to Parks, “about a year later” (i.e., c. 1913) he happened to be passing through Louisville, Kentucky, he claims to have heard a fisherman singing the same words to the same tune. When Parks asked the man about the song, the man refused to talk with him about it. I note that Parks was not engaged in formal collecting of folklore or folk song on either or these occasions; he was not seeking out informants, sitting down with them and listening to their repertoires, while taking careful notes. In fact, he can’t even remember the exact date of the Louisville encounter. As a result, I’m quite skeptical about these two stories; I’m willing to believe that Parks encountered interesting songs on both occasions, but I’m equally willing to believe that his later recall of the words or music, or both, was inaccurate. It seems so unlikely that two singers, hundreds of miles apart, would be singing exactly the same words and exactly the same music; that’s not how folk music gets transmitted; each singer changes a song a little bit as they pass it to the next singer. If Parks had said he had heard a similar tune with similar words, I would be more willing to believe him.

Parks then describes a third encounter with the song:

“In 1918 I was standing on the platform of the depot at Waller, Texas, waiting for a train, when, much to my surprise, I heard the familiar tune being picked on a violin and banjo and two voices singing the following words:

“‘Foller the Risen Lawd,
Foller the Risen Lawd;
The bes’ thing the Wise Man say,
“Foller the Risen Lawd.”‘

“The singers proved to be two Negro boys about sixteen years of age. When they were asked as to where they learned the song, they gave the following explanation. They said that they were musicians traveling with a colored [sic] revivalist and that he had composed this song and that they played it and used it in their revival meetings.”

The next part of Parks’ story may be summarized like this: Curious about the song, he asked “an old Negro who had known a great many slaves in his boyhood days” about the song. Why yes, his informant said, he remembered the song, and he remembered that it was associated with a “peg-leg sailor” who was part of the Underground Railroad, and used the song to provide instructions to enslaved persons so they could escape to Canada. After hearing the story, Parks contacted older members of his family, white people from the North who had been part of the Underground Railroad, and they said there were indeed records from the Anti-Slavery Society documenting a Peg Leg Joe “who made a number of trips through the South and induced young Negroes to run away and escape.” Nothing more was known about this sailor, and nothing more was heard of him after about 1859, according to Parks’s relatives.

Below are the words Parks says were sung by Peg Leg Joe. But Parks does not provide a specific informant for these words; he does not say from whom he collected them; he merely says these words “were held in the memory of the Negroes.” This vague attribution makes me doubt the authenticity of the lyrics — more on this below.

When the sun come back,
When the firs’ quail call,
Then the time is come
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.

Chorus: Foller the drinkin’ gou’d,
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d;
For the old man say,
“Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.”

The riva’s bank am a very good road,
The dead trees show the way,
Lef’ foot, peg foot goin’ on,
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.
[Note: Peg Leg Joe reportedly blazed a trail using the marks of a peg imprint and the imprint of a left foot]

The riva ends a-tween two hills,
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d:
‘Nuther riva on the other side
Follers the drinkin’ gou’d.

Wha the little riva
Meet the grea’ big un,
The ole man waits —
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.
[Note: the last two verses reportedly describe a route following the Tombigee River in Alabama north, then across to the Tennessee River, and thence to the Ohio River.]

Personally, I suspect Parks did what so many elite white folklore collectors did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: he used a heavy editorial hand: he may have taken several “floating verses” and combined them; he may have filled out incomplete verses; he may have combined versions from several different parts of the country; he may have added lyrics that interested him to a tune he liked. I don’t doubt Parks’s honesty, but I do doubt his scholarship; while acceptable in his day, today his methodology would be considered slipshod.

Where does this leave us?

First of all, the tune as commonly sung (i.e., the version in the UU hymnal) should probably be attributed as “Music: probable traditional African American, arranged by Lee Hays.” Why say say the music is probably traditional? Because the 1928 Parks article raises the very real possibility that the tune that he recorded and remembered in 1928 was composed by an unknown African American revivalist. If those revivalists traveled widely, they may have spread their tune from North Carolina to Kentucky from 1912 to 1918, thus accounting for Parks hearing similar or identical tunes across six years and a wide geographical range. I don’t think it’s right to obscure the possibility of that revivalist, because if we obscure that possibility, then we erase yet another African American composer from history. I also feel it’s important to acknowledge that an elite white man altered the tune significantly, so the attribution should state that clearly.

Personally, I’d feel much better if the hymnal had the version of the melody published by Parks in 1928, rather than the sanitized version recorded by the (all-white) Weavers in 1947. That would also simplify the attribution to: “Music: probable traditional African American.”

As for the words, I don’t doubt that some of the Parks wrote down were actually sung by African Americans. I do have strong doubts as to whether the words Parks edited and published in 1928 were the exact words sung in the 1850s by African Americans. Assuming the song does in fact date back to the 1850s, what we know of the folk process makes it almost certain that the words changed over time. And what if the song does not date to the 1850s? It seems entirely possible to me that the words were composed by an unknown African American poet in the last decades 19th century, or the first decade of the 20th century. Those decades were a time of incredible innovation in African American music, with the ongoing growth of sacred music and the emergence of blues and jazz. Some of the early blues lyrics are some of the greatest poetry to come out of America. What about a talented African American poet looking back on the stories of his or her parents or grandparents, and creating a story of agency, escape, and freedom? Once again, I don’t want to erase yet another African American poet from history. So I’d suggest an attribution something like this: “Words: African American tradition.” Not “traditional” — but rather from the tradition of African American folk and composed lyrics.

Many conservative Christians are appalled by anti-vaxxers

Steve Hassen, a conservative Christian, has written a blog post that explains why conservative Christians should get vaccinated. The blog post is based on a podcast interview with Professor Warren Throckmorton, a psychologist. Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:

“I asked Throckmorton for his view on the COVID-19 pandemic and what he thinks about vaccination? He and his family are vaccinated. When I asked him about Christianity and science, he told me Biblical sources provide believers guidance. He pointed out that Timothy, a disciple of St. Paul, had a stomach ailment. He was not advised to pray or just have faith but to take a little wine (that is, treat the ailment). Luke, who wrote one of the Gospels, was himself a physician. God gave us incredible gifts: our minds, intelligence, and curiosity. Certainly, we are meant to use our minds and think and not allow irrational fears to cause harm and death.”

Hassen covers a lot of ground in his blog post. He takes on Trump: “How can anyone [who’s] religious think God is using Donald Trump?” He explains how science and conservative Christian faith are compatible. He critiques Christian nationalism and dominionism, two of the biggest threats to U.S. democracy today. And he touches on the problem of narcissism in the pastors of mega-churches (some of what he says there reminds me of one or two people who used to be ministers of some of our largest UU congregations).

Hassen reminds me of the conservative Christians I used to know back in the day: people whose intelligence, morals, and ethics I held in great respect, even while disagreeing with them on some theological points. Unitarian Universalists who like to demonize white evangelical conservative Christians might want to read this post, and expand their horizons a little bit. If we’re going to stop the threat to democracy represented by QAnon and Trumpism, we need all the allies we can get.

Reforming police, 1969

In July, 1969, Jules Siegel interviewed several Black Panthers for an article he was writing. The Panthers he spoke to talked quite a bit about a topic that has been very much in the news over the past year — reforming the police. Field Marshal “D.C.” [Donald Cox] of the Black Panthers laid out the fundamental problem:

“It has been called police brutality. It’s a matter of educating people to the fact that yes, it’s brutal, but the term for it is fascism. Black people already know, because they’ve lived under fascist terror ever since we’ve been in this country. Fascism is the police running amok in the black community.”

“Poison,” a field lieutenant from the Chicago Black Panthers, outlined the Panthers’ solution — community control of police:

“Lots of people don’t understand what community control means. It means giving the people a voice. Right now they have no voice because it is a centralist form of government. Community control of the police doesn’t mean that the community would take over the present pig [i.e., police] department. It means that people will have people from within that community policing that community. If one of these police would commit a crime against the people, he [sic] would have to come home at night. It’s a hard thing to go home if you’ve committed a crime against your own people. Before you commit that crime, you begin to think.”

It’s also important to note that Field Marshal D.C. asserted that the fascism of the police was not rooted in race and racism per se:

“It’s in the interest of the power structure to propagate the idea that it’s a race struggle rather than a class struggle. As long as they can keep people divided into ethnic groups, the masses are not going to join together to form a united front against the exploiter who is oppressing everyone.”

In short, the Panthers saw that the real problem was not the police, but the power structure that the police represented.

The Black Panthers had many problems, including rampant sexism. But I still find much of their vision for society compelling. They saw that U.S. capitalism was upheld by a form of fascism, and that police brutality was one manifestation of that fascism. They wanted to wrest social control away from “the oppressor,” and put that control back in the hands of the people. And they combined grand theory with practical action: by July, 1969, the Panthers’ “Breakfast for Children” program was feeding 50,000 children a week across the U.S. In spite of their flaws, theirs was a grand vision for a more just and egalitarian society. This vision provides a necessary context for their proposals for police reform.

A screen grab from a National Archives video of the Black Panthers, c. 1966-1969, showing Party leader Kathleen Cleaver (?) speaking at Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland.

Notes: Interview excerpts from “The Black Panthers” by Jules Siegel, from his book Record (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books/Rolling Stone, 1972). More about the Black Panther Party at the National Archives, including vintage video footage, and brief biographies of prominent women Panthers.

One feminist’s view of non-binary gender

I became aware of feminism as a teenager, back in the 1970s. After some initial resistance, feminism wound up appealing to me not only because it held out the hope of equality for women, but also because it challenged existing gender norms and gender roles. I’ve never been comfortable with the stereotypical gender norms for men in the United States. I’m not the strong silent type. I’ve always liked working with children. I kinda like doing housework (except cooking, I’m bad at cooking). I didn’t know the term “toxic masculinity” back then, but I knew what toxic masculinity was, I knew it was hurting me, and I wanted to change it.

But we mostly remained stuck with the old gender norms throughout the 1980s, and the 1990s, and the 2000s. In 2002, I took a battery of psychological tests as part of my preparation for ministry. On one of those tests, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), I scored well out of the normal range on gender identity. Worried that I had some kind of pathology, I asked the psychologist who administered the test what that score meant. Oh, the psychologist said, don’t worry about that, men going into ministry often test out of the normal range on that scale. I found the psychologist’s reply even more disturbing than the thought that I might have a pathology — because the psychologist’s reply meant that men trained to be empathetic, caring, and group-oriented were considered pathological by society.

So when non-binary gender finally emerged as a viable option, I felt we were taking a step in the right direction. Biological females who happened to be assertive and articulate and willing to talk over men didn’t have to get pushed into a gender role that required them to be deferential and self-deprecating. Biological males who happened to be caring and empathetic didn’t have to get pushed into a gender role that required them to be strong, silent, and unemotional. Non-binary gender gave the promise of allowing a wide range of gender expression, far beyond these two examples.

Non-binary gender is a step in the right direction. It has opened a tiny and fragile space between male and female gender roles. But across the U.S., only a small percentage of people now consider themselves non-binary gender. For most people in the U.S., the old gender norms remain intact. I feel hopeful about that fragile open space where non-binary gender exists. But I’m discouraged that the old gender norms still wall in that tiny open space. I’m discouraged that non-binary gender has to be a matter of individual choice for just a few people, rather than a change in the way society understands gender. I’m discouraged at the thought that as a man, I’d still probably test as pathological on the MMPI. And I’m especially discouraged that non-binary gender people face wide social discrimination.

When non-binary people are discriminated against in much the same way the women are discriminated against, it seems to me that we’re still stuck with toxic masculinity running the show. We have taken a step in the right direction, but from my feminist perspective, it’s only a baby step; I wish we could grow up, and take adult-sized steps.

The big divide in U.S. religion today

U.S. Catholic bishops have voted 155 to 55 (with 6 abstentions) to deny holy communion to U.S. politicians who support abortion rights. Elected officials who openly support the death penalty will still be allowed to receive communion, even though the church’s catechism states, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Elected officials who deny climate change will still be able to receive communion, even though Pope Francis has said, “We need to act decisively to put an end to all emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century at the very latest, and to do even more than that.” This is typical of U.S. religion today.

I have come to believe that the big divide in U.S. religion these days is actually politics, not theology. Do you support the Republican party line, or the Democratic party line? — that’s how the U.S. religious divide is defined. The U.S. Catholic bishops voting to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights, yet taking no action on politicians who support the death penalty, may not seem logically consistent. Nevertheless, their stance is entirely consistent with Republican politics.

I’m pretty sure that Unitarian Universalists suffer from the same problem, on the other side of the political divide. Unitarian Universalism is doing its best to stand up against racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism (to some extent), and other forms of systemic injustice. Classism, however, is mostly dismissed or ignored within Unitarian Universalism. Nor does Unitarian Universalism engage in systematic critique of capitalism. Our stance may not be logically consistent, but it is entirely consistent Democratic politics.

Therefore, fellow Unitarian Universalists, before you speak scornfully of the Catholic bishops, first reflect on how Unitarian Universalism hews so closely to the Democratic party line. Instead of speaking of another religion with scorn, we might instead reflect on the words of a wise ancient Jewish teacher who said, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” In other words, I do hope we Unitarian Universalists don’t become merely a special interest group of the Democratic party.

Masks for employees

A couple of weeks ago, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) decided that masks would be required in workplaces, unless all employees in a given area proved that they were vaccinated. Then the business community leaned on Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, and the rules quickly changed. Requiring businesses to determine the vaccination status of their employees would hamper the economy, said the business owners. Newsom is facing a recall vote so he quickly agreed, and Cal/OSHA had to fall into line, and now employees who say they’re vaccinated (no proof required) won’t have to wear masks.

Mitch Steiger of the California Labor Federation, AFL/CIO, disagrees with Newsom. Steiger pointed out that workers in rural areas — some rural counties in California have vaccination rates on the order of 25% — will especially be at risk. When the San Jose Mercury News asked for comment, Steiger said, “We will literally have decided to sacrifice workers’ lives in order to spare employers the inconvenience of looking at a vaccination card.”

It happened again

The state of California just changed the COVID rules again. As reported by Bay Area News Group:

“Under mounting pressure, California’s workplace-safety board on Wednesday voted to drop controversial new rules that would have required many workers to keep their masks on for months — just hours after state officials announced that vaccinated Californians can go mask free in most settings starting next week.”

(The “mounting pressure” was from business groups, who out-pressured employee groups and unions who emphasized the safety of workers. Next time some politician says, “We follow the science,” remember that there are still many things scientists don’t know about COVID, which means that politicians are responding to political pressure as much as they’re “following the science.”)

The most difficult aspect of complying with COVID rules is that they’re constantly changing. Those of us who work with children are going to be dealing with changing COVID rules for at least six more months, assuming the vaccine trials for children aged 5 to 11 are completed by late this year. And those of us who also work with children under age 5 may be dealing with changing COVID rules for another year.

It’s exhausting. You learn one set of rules, and they change. This is inevitable. Our knowledge of COVID keeps changing. Though Americans love to blame people — the Democrats blame the Republicans, the Republicans blame the Democrats — in this case, there are no people to blame. We can only blame the virus. It’s silly to blame an unthinking virus. So there’s no blame.

But it’s still exhausting. COVID rules are changing on a weekly basis. It’s impossible to keep up.

A naturalist’s field journal

I’ll be leading a workshop on ecological spirituality at Ferry Beach Conference Center in Main this summer. One of the ecological spiritual practices I’m going to explore with participants is keeping some kind of nature journal. Although most nature journals focus on musings and emotions, it’s also possible to keep a nature journal rooted in the practices of field biologists. An example of the first type of journal might be Henry Thoreau’s early journals, where he relates his philosophical musings to his observations of the natural world. An example of the second type of journal might be Henry Thoreau’s later journals (1853 and later), where his close observations of the natural world lead to deeper insights into non-human organisms.

I’ve found lots of books and online resources that tell how to keep the first type of journal, but it’s more difficult to find accessible books and resources that teach people how to keep the second type of journal. So I wrote an eight-page introduction to the topic to share with the participants in the upcoming workshop. Click on the image below to read a PDF of “A Field Journal for Naturalists.”

The 2021 Stuffed Animal Sleepover

Birago Lion and Belinda Sheep introduce the 2021 Stuffed Animal Sleepover at the UU Church of Palo Alto. Dr. Sharpie and Elephant are going to help out, too.

Click on the image above to view the video on Vimeo.

Full script is below.

Continue reading “The 2021 Stuffed Animal Sleepover”

Black Wall Streets

The centennial of the destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, known as “Black Wall Street,” has got me thinking about other Black Wall Streets that once existed in the U.S. — places where black entrepreneurs could find success more easily, places where African Americans could accumulate wealth. What happened to them?

Richmond, Virginia, had Jackson Ward, another Black Wall Street, a locus for black-owned businesses. In the 1950s, urban renewal — a turnpike cut through the middle of the neighborhood — was a major factor in destroying Jackson Ward as an economic center.

The Hayti neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina, is considered a Black Wall Street. Although much of the financial growth was driven by a couple of large black-owned businesses, the neighborhood launched a significant number of African Americans into the middle class. In the 1960s, it was destroyed by an urban renewal scheme.

The Fifteenth Ward of Syracuse, N.Y., was a Black Wall Street. Guess what killed off the Fifteenth Ward? If you guessed “urban renewal,” you guessed correctly.

What killed these Black Wall Streets? White mob violence (with the connivance of local government and even the National Guard) in Tulsa — government-decreed urban renewal in Richmond and Durham. The methods might have changed, but the outcome was the same, thus demonstrating yet again that capitalism in the U.S. gives preference to certain classes of people, while blocking others from achieving wealth through entrepreneurship.

In a number of places, local groups are starting their own initiatives to promote black entrepreneurship. I did quick Web search and turned up Black Wall Street organizations in St. Louis, Mo., Asheville, N.C., and Kalamazoo, Mich. There are other organizations that don’t use the “Black Wall Street” name, but promote a similar ethic, such as Black-Owned Brooklyn.

Many of us are skeptical of capitalism these days; there’s a growing suspicion that systemic racism may actually be a core part of capitalism’s feature set. Nevertheless, capitalism and entrepreneurship are just about the only way to get into the middle class these days. That being the case, maybe the best way to memorialize the demise of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street is to do business with local black-owned businesses.

Except that Amazon has eviscerated local retail business, Big Tech is degrading local businesses into the gig economy, banking and insurance and manufacturing are dominated by huge multinational white-owned companies which have destroyed local businesses…the methods keep changing, but somehow many African Americans still find themselves shut out of the middle class. As Mariahdessa Ekere Tallie puts it in her poem “Global Warming Blues”:

seem like for Big Men’s living
little folks has got to die.