Songs of the Underground Railroad

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Polaris, the North Star, is found by imagining a line from Merak (b) to Dubhe (a) and then extending it for five times the distance after Dubhe (a) to Polaris (a Ursae Minoris). The song's title is said to refer to the star formation (an asterism) known in America as the Big Dipper and in Europe as The Plough. 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. Ursa Major, Ursa Minor and Polaris.png
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). The song's title is said to refer to the star formation (an asterism ) known in America as the Big Dipper and in Europe as The Plough. 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.

Songs of the Underground Railroad were spiritual and work songs used during the early-to-mid 19th century in the United States to encourage and convey coded information to escaping slaves as they moved along the various Underground Railroad routes. As it was illegal in most slave states to teach slaves to read or write, songs were used to communicate messages and directions about when, where, and how to escape, and warned of dangers and obstacles along the route.

Contents

Songs

One reportedly coded Underground Railroad song is "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd". [1] The song's title is said to refer to the star formation (an asterism ) known in America as the Big Dipper and in Europe as The Plough. 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. [2]

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

Another song with a reportedly secret meaning is "Now Let Me Fly" [3] which references the biblical story of Ezekiel's Wheels. [4] 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.

"Go Down Moses", a spiritual that depicts the biblical story of Moses in Exodus 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 would have been the slave owner.

Music is important in the religion of African Americans today, as it was in the telling of freedom. [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave and abolitionist author. In his 19th-century autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (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. 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

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves, oil on paperboard, 22 x 26.25 inches, circa 1862, Brooklyn Museum Brooklyn Museum - A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves - Eastman Johnson - overall.jpg
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 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

Skeptics claim that the legend has been picked up by credulous authors and published as fact without historical documentation. Some authors who believe the song held instructions for escaping slavery admit the ephemeral nature of oral history, often using such phrases as "supposed", "according to folklorists", and "gospelologists cite", to preface their statements.

Many popular 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 little traditional archival evidence to support their claims. Some 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. [12] [13]

There is evidence, however, that the Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman used at least two songs. Sarah Bradford's biography of Tubman, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869, quotes Tubman as saying that she used "Go Down Moses" as one of two code songs to communicate with fugitive enslaved people escaping from Maryland. [14]

"Follow the Drinkin' Gourd"

The theory perhaps developed from the expansion of a folktale [15] [16] 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. [17] [18]

Songs associated with the Underground Railroad

See also

Related Research Articles

"Go Down Moses" is a spiritual phrase that describes events in the Old Testament of the Bible, specifically Exodus 5:1: "And the LORD spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Let my people go, that they may serve me", in which God commands Moses to demand the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. This phrase is the title of the one of the most well known African American spirituals of all time. The song discusses themes of freedom, a very common occurrence in spirituals. In fact, the song actually had multiple messages, discussing not only the metaphorical freedom of Moses but also the physical freedom of runaway slaves, and many slave holders outlawed this song because of those very messages. The opening verse as published by the Jubilee Singers in 1872:

The slave narrative is a type of literary genre involving the (written) autobiographical accounts of enslaved Africans, particularly in the Americas. Over six thousand such narratives are estimated to exist; about 150 narratives were published as separate books or pamphlets. In the United States during the Great Depression (1930s), more than 2,300 additional oral histories on life during slavery were collected by writers sponsored and published by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program. Most of the 26 audio-recorded interviews are held by the Library of Congress.

Underground Railroad Network for fugitive slaves in 19th-century U.S.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century, and used by enslaved African-Americans to primarily escape into free states and Canada. The scheme was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. The enslaved who risked escape and those who aided them are also collectively referred to as the "Underground Railroad". Various other routes led to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished, and to islands in the Caribbean that were not part of the slave trade. An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until approximately 1790. However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 1700s. It ran north and grew steadily until the Civil War began. One estimate suggests that, by 1850, 100,000 enslaved people had escaped via the network.

Harriet Tubman African-American abolitionist

Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the movement for women's suffrage.

Spirituals is a genre of music that is "purely and solely the creation" of generations of African Americans, which merged African cultural heritage with the experiences of being held in bondage in slavery, at first during the transatlantic slave trade—the largest and most inhumane forced migration in recorded human history, and for centuries afterwards, through the domestic slave trade. Spirituals encompass the "sing songs", work songs, and plantation songs that evolved into the blues, and the gospel songs in church. In the nineteenth century, the word "spirituals" referred to all these subcategories of folk songs. While they were often rooted in biblical stories, they also described the extreme hardships endured by African Americans who were enslaved from the 17th century until the 1860s. From its roots in African music, new derivative music genres emerged from the spirituals songcraft.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a museum in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, based on the history of the Underground Railroad. Opened in 2004, the Center also pays tribute to all efforts to "abolish human enslavement and secure freedom for all people."

Fugitive slaves in the United States

The phenomenon of slaves running away, seeking to gain freedom, is as old as the institution of slavery itself. In the United States, "fugitive slaves" were slaves who left their master and traveled without authorization. Generally, they tried to reach states or territories where slavery was banned, including Canada, or, until 1821, Spanish Florida. Most slave law tried to control slave travel by requiring them to carry official passes if traveling without a master with them.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot African-American spiritual song

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is an African-American spiritual song and one of the best-known Christian hymns. Originating in early oral and musical African-American traditions, the date it was composed is unknown. Performances by the Hampton Singers and the Fisk Jubilee Singers brought the song to the attention of wider audiences in the late 19th century. J. B. T. Marsh includes an early version of text and tune in his 1876 publication The Story of the Jubilee Singers, with their Songs. The earliest known recording of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was taken in 1909, by the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University.

Follow the Drinking Gourd is an African American folk song first published in 1928. The Drinking Gourd is another name for the Big Dipper asterism. Folklore has it that enslaved people in the United States used it as a point of reference so they would not get lost. According to legend, the song was used by a conductor of the Underground Railroad, called Peg Leg Joe, to guide some fugitive slaves. While the song may possibly refer to some lost fragment of history, the origin and context remain a mystery. A more recent source challenges the authenticity of the claim that the song was used to help slaves escape to the North and to freedom.

Wade in the Water

"Wade in the Water" is an African American jubilee song, a spiritual—in reference to a genre of music "created and first sung by African Americans in slavery". The lyrics to "Wade in the Water" were first co-published in 1901 in New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers by Frederick J. Work and his brother, John Wesley Work Jr., an educator at the historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, Fisk University. Work Jr. —who is also known as John Work II—spent thirty years collecting, promoting, and reviving the songcraft of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, which included being a member and director of the Fisk Jubilee Quartet. The Sunset Four Jubilee Singers made the first commercial recording of "Wade in the Water" in 1925—released by Paramount Records. W. E. B. Du Bois, who called this genre of songs, the Sorrow Songs, reviewed the Sunset Four Jubilee Singers' performance of "Wade in the Water" in a 1925 article in The Crisis —the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's official magazine. "Wade in the Waters" is associated with songs of the Underground Railroad.

Quilts of the Underground Railroad describes a controversial belief that quilts were used to communicate information to African slaves about how to escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. It has been disputed by a number of historians.

Jerry Rescue

The Jerry Rescue occurred on October 1, 1851, and involved the public rescue of a fugitive slave who had been arrested the same day in Syracuse, New York, during the anti-slavery Liberty Party's state convention. The escaped slave was William Henry, a 40-year-old cooper from Missouri who called himself "Jerry."

Steal Away

"Steal Away" is an American Negro spiritual. The song is well known by variations of the chorus:

<i>A Woman Called Moses</i>

A Woman Called Moses is a 1978 American television miniseries based on the life of Harriet Tubman, the escaped African American slave who helped to organize the Underground Railroad, and who led dozens of African Americans from enslavement in the Southern United States to freedom in the Northern states and Canada.

Peg Leg Joe was a sailor who led slaves through the Underground Railroad to freedom. He may have been a real person or composite of people but there is no reliable historical evidence of his existence. As his name suggests, he had a prosthesis for his right leg.

The Quest for Freedom is a 1992 historical film about abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

Raymond S. Lane, Jr., sculptor, created a series of hand-built clay sculptures about Harriet Tubman an Underground Railroad conductor, called “the Moses of the anti-slavery movement” by Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Allen Howard, was first displayed in 2002 in the Children's Learning Center of the Public Library of Hamilton County’s main building, 800 Vine St. in downtown Cincinnati. The clay works depict scenes in the life of the 19th century Underground Railroad heroine. The exhibits is called “Harriet Tubman's Experience in the Underground Railroad.” The sculptures currently are displayed at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati, Ohio.

<i>Harriet, the Woman Called Moses</i>

Harriet, the Woman Called Moses is an opera in two acts composed by Thea Musgrave who also wrote the libretto which is loosely based on episodes in the life of the American abolitionist and former slave Harriet Tubman. The opera premiered on 1 March 1985 in Norfolk, Virginia, performed by Virginia Opera with subsequent broadcasts of the Virginia Opera production on National Public Radio and BBC Radio 3. Musgrave also wrote two shortened versions of the opera—The Story of Harriet Tubman and the concert work Remembering Harriet.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center History museum in Maryland, U.S.

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center is a visitors' center and history museum located on the grounds of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, Maryland, in the United States. The state park is surrounded by the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, whose north side is bordered by the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. Jointly created and managed by the National Park Service and Maryland Park Service, the visitor center opened on March 10, 2017.

<i>Harriet</i> (film) 2019 U.S. biographical film

Harriet is a 2019 American biographical film directed by Kasi Lemmons, who also wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard. It stars Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, with Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe in supporting roles. A biography about Harriet Tubman had been in the works for years, with several actresses, including Viola Davis, rumored to star. Erivo was cast in February 2017, and much of the cast and crew joined the following year. Filming took place in Virginia from October to December 2018.

References

  1. Follow the Drinking Gourd, A Cultural history
  2. "Collection Story", Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History. Retrieved October 18, 2010.
  3. song lyrics Retrieved August 9, 2010
  4. Ray Watson, "Ezekiel's Wheels", The Secret Place. Retrieved August 9, 2010
  5. Kenneth Curry, Gladys Menzies, and Robert Curry, The Legend of the Dancing Trees, Teachers Resource, Curry Brothers Publishing (2006)
  6. 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",
  7. Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America University of Michigan Press (2006), p. 7:
  8. 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."
  9. 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" ..."
  10. 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."
  11. Marc Aronson, "History That Never Happened", School Library Journal (April 1, 2007).
  12. Kelley, James (April 2008). "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): 262–80. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2008.00502.x.
  13. Bresler, Joel. "Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History" . Retrieved 2008-05-05.
  14. See http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bradford/bradford.html pp. 26–27.
  15. 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.
  16. James Kelley, "Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual 'Follow the Drinking Gourd' [ dead link ]", The Journal of Popular American Culture 41.2 (April 2008): 262–80.
  17. H.B. Parks in Volume VII of the Publications of the Texas Folk-Lore Society)." [1928]
  18. It is also the constellation we call the Big Dipper which is used for navigation. The North Star will always lead you North. Tubman reportedly used the Big Dipper, and the North Star, as a guide. According to some authors, Tubman would explain that her father taught her about the Big Dipper so she would always know the way to freedom.
  19. 1 2 3 William C. Kashatus, Just over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad, Chester County Historical Society (2002), p. 18.
  20. 1 2 3 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.
  21. 1 2 Claude, A Green, Jr., OurStory: Putting Color Back Into His-Story: What We Dragged Out of Slavery Infinity Publishing (2006), p. 47.
  22. Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America University of Michigan Press (2006), p. 7.
  23. Oliver Trager, Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Billboard Books (2004), p. 665.