Songs of the Underground Railroad

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Polaris, the North Star, is found by imagining a line from Merak (β) to Dubhe (α) and then extending it for five times the distance after Dubhe (α) to Polaris (α Ursae Minoris)

Songs associated with the Underground Railroad demonstrate that music has always been important in the heritage of African American people. This music can relay a story or bring people together in a common cause. In the slavery era, songs may have conveyed coded meanings to help bring the slaves to freedom. Such claims of coded messages in slave songs are popular and persistent, but the evidence is often muddled and the claims have been challenged by recent scholarship.

Songs[edit]

One reportedly coded song of the Underground Railroad is "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd". The song's title is said to refer to the star formation (an asterism) known as the Big Dipper. The pointer stars of the Big Dipper align with the North Star. In this song the repeated line "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" is thus often interpreted as instructions to escaping slaves to travel north by following the North Star, leading them to the northern states, Canada, and freedom: The song ostensibly encodes escape instructions and a map from Mobile, Alabama up the Tombigbee River, over the divide to the Tennessee River, then downriver to where the Tennessee and Ohio rivers meet in Paducah, Kentucky. [1]

Matthaeus Merian, Ezekiel's "chariot vision", (1593-1650)

Another song with a reportedly secret meaning is "Now Let Me Fly" [2] which references the biblical story of Ezekiel's Wheels. [3] The song talks mostly of a promised land. This song might have boosted the morale and spirit of the slaves, giving them hope that there was a place waiting that was better than where they were.

The song "Go Down Moses" is another spiritual song that depicts the biblical story of Moses. The Exodus story of Moses leading his people to freedom is believed by some to be a coded reference to the conductors on the Underground Railroad. The oppressor in the song is the pharaoh, but in real life the oppressor would have been the slave owner.

Music has its place in history, many believe, by helping thousands of slaves escape a life of slavery and oppression. Music is still of great importance in the religion of African Americans today as it was in the telling of freedom. [4][5][6] [7][8][9][10]

Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave and abolitionist author. In his nineteenth-century autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Douglass gives examples of how the songs sung by slaves had multiple meanings. His examples are sometimes quoted to support the claim of coded slave songs, but they do not illustrate clear use of songs as coded messages for escaping slaves. Douglass similarly offers interesting comments but not clear evidence in My Bondage and Freedom: "A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of 'O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan ,' something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the north – and the north was our Canaan. 'I thought I heard them say,/ There were lions in the way,/ I don’t expect to stay/ Much longer here./' was a favorite air and had a double meaning. In the lips of some, it meant the expectation of a speedy summons to a world of spirits; but in the lips of our company, it simply meant a speedy pilgrimage toward a free state, and deliverance from all the evils and dangers of slavery."

Douglass' observations here likewise do not serve as clear evidence of the successful use of coded song lyrics to aid escaping slaves; he is writing here only of his small group of slaves who are encouraging each other as they finalize their plans to escape, not of widespread use of codes in song lyrics. At the beginning of this same paragraph, he writes that the slave owner may very well have seen through the simple code they were using: "I am the more inclined to think that he suspected us, because ... we did many silly things, very well calculated to awaken suspicion." Douglass immediately goes on to discuss how their repeated singing of freedom was one of those "many silly things."

Urban legend or truth[edit]

Eastman Johnson, "A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves", oil on paperboard, 22 x 26.25 inches, circa 1862, Brooklyn Museum

While many believe that the stories told about the songs of the Underground Railroad are true, there are also many skeptics. Some claim that songs of the Underground Railroad is an urban legend dating from the later twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. The skeptics say "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," they claim that the legend has been picked up by credulous authors and published as fact in several books—never with a cited reference. Some authors, they cite aware of the ephemeral nature of the story, include such phrases as "supposed", "according to folklorists", and "gospelologists cite", to preface their statements. Using such faked history is far from benign, and some experts in the field argue against it.

Many popular, nonacademic sources claim that spirituals and other songs, such as "Steal Away" or "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd", contained coded information and helped individuals navigate the railroad, but these sources offer very little evidence to support their claims. Scholars who have examined these claims tend to believe that while the slave songs may certainly have expressed hope for deliverance from the sorrows of this world, these songs did not present literal help for runaway slaves.[11][12]

"Follow the Drinkin' Gourd"[edit]

The myth perhaps developed from the expansion of a folktale[13][14]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.[15]

Songs associated with the Underground Railroad[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ [1] Retrieved October 18, 2010
  2. ^ song lyrics Retrieved August 9, 2010
  3. ^ [2] Retrieved August 9, 2010
  4. ^ Kenneth Curry, Gladys Menzies, and Robert Curry, The Legend of the Dancing Trees, Teachers Resource, Curry Brothers Publishing (2006)
  5. ^ 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,"
  6. ^ Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America University of Michigan Press (2006), p. 7:
  7. ^ 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."
  8. ^ 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" ..."
  9. ^ 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 Tubman (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."
  10. ^ Marc Aronson, "History That Never Happened", School Library Journal (April 1, 2007)
  11. ^ Kelley, James. 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. 
  12. ^ Bresler, Joel. "Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History". Retrieved 2008-05-05. 
  13. ^ 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 Drinkin' 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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ H.B. Parks in Volume VII of the Publications of the Texas Folk-Lore Society)." [1928]
  16. ^ William C. Kashatus, Just over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad, Chester County Historical Society (2002), p. 18.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ William C. Kashatus, Just over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad, Chester County Historical Society (2002), p. 18.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Claude, A Green, Jr., OurStory: Putting Color Back Into His-Story: What We Dragged Out of Slavery Infinity Publishing (2006), P. 47.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ William C. Kashatus, Just over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad, Chester County Historical Society (2002), p. 18.
  23. ^ Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America University of Michigan Press (2006), p. 7.
  24. ^ Oliver Trager, Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Billboard Books (2004), p. 665,
  25. ^ Claude, A Green, Jr., OurStory: Putting Color Back Into His-Story: What We Dragged Out of Slavery Infinity Publishing (2006), P. 47.