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.