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Songs of the Underground Railroad is an urban legend dating from the later twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Briefly, it states that various songs were coded with instructions to be used to guide slaves on the Underground Railroad. While no historical evidence is ever offered as a source, the legend has been picked up by credulous authors and published as fact in several books—never with a cited reference.[1][2][3] Some authors, aware of the ephemeral nature of the story, include such phrases as "supposed",[4]"according to folklorists",[5] and "gospelologists cite",[6] to preface their statements. Using such faked history is far from benign, and experts in the field argue against it.[7]

"Follow the Drinking Gourd"

The myth perhaps developed from the expansion of a folktale[8][9]found in John A. Lomax's 1934 book American Ballads & Folk Songs. In his preface to "Foller de Drinkin' Gou'd", page 227 in his section on reels, he quotes a story from H.B Parks:

"One of my great-uncles, who was connected with the railroad movement, remembered that in the records of the Anti-Slavery Society there was a story of a peg-leg sailor, known as Peg-Leg Joe, who made a number of trips through the South and induced young Negroes to run away and escape. ... The main scene of his activities was in the country north of Mobile, and the trail described in the song followed northward to the headwaters of the Tombigbee River, thence over the divide and down the Ohio River to Ohio ... the peg-leg sailor would ... teach this song to the young slaves and show them the mark of his natural left foot and the round hole made by his peg-leg. He would then go ahead of them northward and leave a print made of charcoal and mud of the outline of a human left foot and a round spot in place of the right foot. ... Nothing more could be found relative to the man. ... 'Drinkin' gou'd' is the Great Dipper. ... 'The grea' big un,' the Ohio." (H.B. Parks in Volume VII of the Publications of the Texas Folk-Lore Society)." [1928]

Song linked to this modern myth

References

  1. ^ Kenneth Curry, Gladys Menzies, and Robert Curry, The Legend of the Dancing Trees, Teachers Resource, Curry Brothers Publishing (2006)
  2. ^ Gwendolin Sims Warren, Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hymns & Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church, Owl Books (1999), p. 16: Three of the songs in this spirituals section, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Go Down, Moses," and "Steal Away," contain thes coded meanngs. The invisible church was the black grapevine of news about abolitionism, slave revolts, and the Underground Railroad network. Its music was often used as the code and signal of the movement."
  3. ^ Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America University of Michigan Press (2006), p. 7: "Wade in the Water," one of the most common slave songs and still a gospel standard provided literal escape instructions for slaves pursued by bloodhounds. When they heard a voice call out "Steal away to Jesus, I ain't got long to say here," slave knew that Harriet Tubeman used the song as a summons to the Underground Railroad."
  4. ^ Claude, A Green, Jr., OurStory: Putting Color Back Into His-Story: What We Dragged Out of Slavery, Infinity Publishing (2006), P. 47: "Songs like, "Wade in the water", "Good news, de chariot's coming", "Swing low sweet chariot" and "Steal away" were all supposed to have a coded meanings."
  5. ^ William C. Kashatus, Just over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad, Chester County Historical Society (2002), p. 18: "According to folklorists, some slaves communicated their intention of escape through songs whose words containing secret messages. .., "Follow the Drinking Gourd" ... "Wade in the Water, Children" .. "Let Us Break Bread Together" ..."
  6. ^ Oliver Trager, Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Billboard Books (2004), p. 665: "Gospelologists cite "Wade in the Water" as an example of song composed for one purpose and used secretly for another. Slaves recited it to accompany the rite of baptism, but it was used by Underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubeman (dubbed "a woman name Moses") to communicate to fugitive slaves escaping to the North that they should "wade in the water" to throw bloodhounds off their scent."
  7. ^ Marc Aronson, "History That Never Happened", School Library Jorrnal (April 1, 2007): " “But faked history serves no one, especially when it buries important truths that have been hidden far too long,” adds Bordewich, the author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (Amistad, 2005)."
  8. ^ Marc Aronson, "History That Never Happened", School Library Journal (April 1, 2007): "Maybe some enterprising researcher will discover that there was actually an earlier version of “Follow the Drinking Gourd”—one that was sung by escaping slaves. In the meantime, our obligation to young readers is to pay attention to our own doubts, to be forthright skeptics. It’s up to the next generation of scholars to prove us wrong.
  9. ^ James Kelley, "Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual 'Follow the Drinking Gourd'", The Journal of Popular American Culture 41.2 (April 2008): 262-80.
  10. ^ William C. Kashatus, Just over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad, Chester County Historical Society (2002), p. 18.
  11. ^ Gwendolin Sims Warren, Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hymns & Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church, Owl Books (1999), p. 16.
  12. ^ William C. Kashatus, Just over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad, Chester County Historical Society (2002), p. 18.
  13. ^ Gwendolin Sims Warren, Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hymns & Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church, Owl Books (1999), p. 16.
  14. ^ Claude, A Green, Jr., OurStory: Putting Color Back Into His-Story: What We Dragged Out of Slavery Infinity Publishing (2006), P. 47.
  15. ^ Gwendolin Sims Warren, Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hymns & Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church, Owl Books (1999), p. 16.
  16. ^ William C. Kashatus, Just over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad, Chester County Historical Society (2002), p. 18.
  17. ^ Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America University of Michigan Press (2006), p. 7.
  18. ^ Oliver Trager, Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Billboard Books (2004), p. 665,
  19. ^ Claude, A Green, Jr., OurStory: Putting Color Back Into His-Story: What We Dragged Out of Slavery Infinity Publishing (2006), P. 47.
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