The Underground Railroad was a network of conspirators working to help slaves escape the United States to find refuge in the British Empire and other places where slavery was illegal. In 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which helped slave owners recapture their escaped human “property.” The act put escaped or free Blacks living in non-slave states in danger. Freedom was found through the underground railroad.
The railroad included various routes north with safe houses and “conductors,” who helped passengers on their way. Over the five decades that the Underground Railroad ran, around 100,000 slaves passed through it with hopes of freedom. While the road to freedom included the Caribbean and Mexico, one of the main terminals was Canada, and many thousands settled in communities in Ontario.
There are many songs associated with the struggle of African Americans to escape slavery. One of the best known is “Follow The Drinking Gourd”. The history of the song is unclear. It is attributed to Peg Leg Joe, an “abolitionist” who worked on plantations in Alabama and taught the song to slaves as an instruction manual to escape. The drinking gourd is the big dipper which points north. Other details like the dead trees and the river banks were specific indicators to the Mobile, Alabama area. Some say it was a favourite of Harriet Tubman, a legendary escaped slave who returned a number of times to free others. According to one account, “the old man” in the song is Harriet Tubman, who disguised herself on her trips south.
“Follow the Drinking Gourd” was collected in 1912 and published in 1928 by the Texas Folklore Society. It was again published in the Peoples Songs Bulletin by Lee Hays in 1947. This brought it to the folk revival and it has been widely sung ever since. Lee Hays was a member of The Weavers, along with Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. They recorded the song in the early fifties (above). A more contemporary version is by Richie Havens:
Often religious songs with an emancipatory message were drawn from the Bible, focusing on the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. They were sung to maintain a sense of hope and pride among slaves. One of the best known songs is “Let My People Go.”
The magnificent singer and freedom fighter Paul Robeson was one of the first Afro-American artists to record emancipation songs, starting in the twenties. Robeson always had a warm feeling for Canada. In 1952 when his passport was confiscated during the McCarthy period, he sang songs of defiance and solidarity in what would later be known as the Peace Arch Concert on the border between Canada and the United States. At least 30,000 people came out to support his protest of McCarthyism and the Red Scare.
Nathaniel Dett was one of the first Afro-Canadian composers. Born in the Niagara Falls region in 1882, his forbearers may well have arrived there by means of the Underground Railroad. Dett became one of the first Afro-Canadian or Afro-American composers of “serious” music. He had a long career and is one of the pioneers of combining European and Afro-American music. He wrote eloquently about his aims:
“We have this wonderful store of folk music—the melodies of an enslaved people … But this store will be of no value unless we utilize it, unless we treat it in such a manner that it can be presented in choral form, in lyric and operatic works, in concertos and suites and salon music—unless our musical architects take the rough timber of Negro themes and fashion from it music which will prove that we, too, have national feelings and characteristics, as have the European peoples whose forms we have zealously followed for so long.”
In 1998 The Nathaniel Dett Chorale was founded in Toronto to carry on his memory and work. “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” is an Afro-American gospel song with a strong liberation theme and a chorus that asks, “Didn’t my lord deliver Daniel; Then why not every man?”
Enjoy these songs in the spirit of freedom and the role Canada played in helping many thousands escape slavery, a part of Black History Month.
For more on the Black-Canadian experience, visit Black History Canada.