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Saturday, June 27, 2020

Follow The Drinking Gourd

Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a waiting 
for to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd

 When the sun comes up [or back]
And the first quail calls
 Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a waiting
For to carry you to freedom
 Follow the drinking gourd


The riverbed makes a mighty fine road
Dead trees to show you the way
And it's left foot, peg foot travelling on
Follow the drinking gourd

The river ends between two hills
Follow the drinking gourd
There's another river on the other side

Follow the drinking gourd


Follow the Drinking Gourd was first published in 1928.  The song collector who published it said he heard it from others, but most students of folk song and spiritual songs think at best he was exaggerating, as the circumstances seemed unlikely and no other collector ever seems to have heard it.
Peg-Leg Joe seems to also be the stuff of legends, much like Paul Bunyan and Mike Fink.  There may have been such a person, or perhaps he just grew around out of stories told. It would seem like a peg-leg would be too easily identifiable to make him an effective conductor on the Underground Railroad, but perhaps clever travellers and conductors made the story up to misdirect slave-catchers and others wishing ill to freedom seekers.  That's mere speculation, but who knows?

What isn't mythical is that the North Star, seen in the dipper or drinking gourd constellation, was important to enslaved Black Americans before and after freedom. They used it practically as a compass to help them to make it freedom in the north.  They used it symbolically.  As a symbol it inflamed imaginations,  inspired hearts, spurred hopes, infused dreams.  It was claimed that every enslaved mother taught her child to identify the North Star as early as possible.

Charles Ball in his account of years of slavery and his escape to freedom (written with the help of a friendly abolitionist, as literacy was denied Ball by law for fifty years of his life) references the practical use of the North Star:

" I now began to feel the want of shoes, mine having long since been worn out, my boots also beginning to fail so much I was obliged to bind straps of hickory bark about them to keep them from falling to pieces. It was now November and I was yet in South Carolina. I determined to abandon the roads altogether and advanced steadily. though slowly. for four or five nights. setting my face to the north star when I was again delayed by dark weather and kept in idleness nearly two weeks. On the second night after this, my course was arrested by a broad and rapid river, which I believed to be the Catawba. This I crossed by swimming, resting at some large rocks near the middle. I now considered myself in North Carolina. The month of November is always a season of clouds and vapours, but at this time the fine weather vanished early in the month and all the clouds of the universe seemed to have collected in North Carolina. From the second night after passing the Catawba I did not see the north star for three weeks, and in that time made no progress..."

John Pierpoint, staunch abolitionist and popular antebellum period American poet, used it in his poem about slavery*:
Star of the North, I look to thee        20
While on I press; for well I know
  Thy light and truth shall set me free;—
Thy light, that no poor slave deceiveth;
Thy truth, that all my soul believeth.

Below are a few samples taken from the book,  The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others Or Witnessed by the Author : Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road. This book written by William Still, a freeborn black man from the north, secretary of The Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery's Vigilance Committee, I believe sometimes treasurer, and frequent funder of Harriet Tubman and others on the Underground Rail Road.  He seems to have been quite a remarkable man in his own right, and was uniquely positioned to note the accounts of the men and women who took their fredom in their own hands and made the harrowing journey North to freedom.

 In the preface he explains: "In these Records will be found interesting narratives of the escapes of many men, women and children, from the prison-house of bondage; from cities and plantations; from rice swamps and cotton fields; from kitchens and mechanic shops; from Border States and Gulf States; from cruel masters and mild masters; — some guided by the north star alone, penniless, braving the perils of land and sea, eluding the keen scent of the blood-hound as well as the more dangerous pursuit of the savage slave-hunter; some from secluded dens and caves of the earth where for months and years they had been hidden away waiting for the chance to escape; from mountains and swamps, where indescribable suffering from hunger and other privations had patiently been endured." 

Still relates the account of Edward and his two brothers, held in bondage by the same man. Upon discovered they had been sold away down south, they were "Moved almost to desperation at their master's course in thus selling them, the three brothers after reflection determined to save themselves if possible, and without any definite knowledge of the journey, they turned their eyes towards the North Star, and under the cover of night they started for_Pennsylvania, not knowing whether they would ever see the goodly land of freedom..."

In another account he says, "The Vigilance Committee for aiding and befriending fugitives" held regular meetings but could not hold them "too publicly, as we almost always had some of the travelers toward the north star present whose masters or their agents were frequently in the city in hot pursuit. "

 I can find few better examples to illustrate just how much import the north star had in inspiring and sparking the flames of imagination in those seeking freedom than the fact that Frederick Douglass named his abolitionist paper The North Star. You can read the introductory article and search for others at this very informative website.

Found at Mudcat (where many informative discussions of folk songs are held):

 Botkin, B.A. 1944. A Treasury of Southern Folklore. Crown Publishers, NY. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" was first documented by a folklorist, H.B. Parks, in Texas. His account of discovering the song and the story behind it are difficult to obtain ("Follow the Drinking Gourd." 1928. Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, Frank Dobie, ed). Botkin's account of the song is essentially a reprint of Park's publication.
Botkin quotes verbatim from Park's article except the music, which is from People's Songs, vol.1, No.2, p.12 (1947), as sung by Lee Hayes. Another reprint of the Parks article is in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore, edited by Alan Dundes (University Press of Mississippi, 1990, pp. 465-468), with the original music and lyrics.
Parks records the story by "an old Negro" he met at College Station, Texas (date not given) as follows:
He [i.e., the old Negro] said that just before the Civil War, somewhere in the South, he was not just sure where, there came a sailor who had lost one leg and had the missing member replaced by a peg-leg. He would appear very suddenly at some plantation and ask for work as a painter or carpenter. This he was able to get at almost every place. He made friends with the slaves and soon all of the young colored men were singing the song that is herein mentioned. The following spring nearly all the young men among the slaves disappeared and made their way to the north and finally to Canada by following a trail that had been made by the peg-leg sailor and was held in memory by the Negroes in this peculiar song....
One of my [i.e., Park's] 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-legged sailor, known as Peg-Leg Joe, who made a number of trips through the South and induced young Negroes to run away and escape through the North to Canada....
Parks had heard this song sung by "a little Negro boy" in Hot Springs, North Carolina in 1912; by "a Negro fisherman" in Lousville in 1913; and by "two Negro boys" at Waller, Texas in 1918.
The story behind the song seems to have mainly come from the anonymous "old Negro.""

Parks also said that the first time he heard the song sung in 1912:
"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, giving 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"

Like George Washington's little axe and the cherry tree, the song of the drinking gourd may be somewhat apocryphal, but then again, they both may be more of an exaggeration than an apocryphal tale, and both tell us something deep, rich, and meaningful about the people who hold the stories dear.

You can read William Still's inspiring account of escapes on the underground rail-road online free here:
You can buy a text or an audible version here:
A short review of one of the drinking gourd picture books and some other Black history and stories to read here.

These are all valuable additions to your family reading and singing.  However, let me also suggest that you do not let all or even the majority of the stories your kids read about Black Americans be about slavery. There should be a healthy number of good stories about regular black kids having regular black lives and regular black kid story adventures as well as biographies about black Americans known for other accomplishments. Some recommended books at that link, and I'd like to make an extra plug for WHOOSH!.

Taj Mahal sings it here (an Amazon song you can download)
Kim and Reggie Harris sing it here (.99 to download)

For more about why this is a valuable song (it was important to the Civil Rights activists) even though its origins are not reliable here.  It's great folklore. It's not strictly underground railroad history.

*John Pierpont- in a strange twist, while John was so strongly anti-slavery, James Lord Pierpont,one of his sons, widowed and failed in business left his children to his father to rear, moved to Georgia, remarried and began a second family, wrote minstrel songs, and when the Civil War began he wrote pro-confederate songs and joined the Confederate Army, even as his 76 y.o. father served as a Chaplain in the Union Army (which proved too taxing for Pierpont Senior's health, so he retired and worked for the Post Office).  James Lord Pierpont, author of minstrel and pro-confederate songs, also wrote Jingle Bells.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

What thoughts are you holding on to?

Two monks were walking along the bank of a swift river. There they met a young woman who could not cross alone. One of the monks picked up the young woman and carried her across the river to the other side.
     Sometime much later, the other monk said to his companion, “Did you forget that it is against the rules to touch a woman? Have you forgotten the vows you have taken?”
     The other monk answered, “Brother, I left the young woman on the bank of the river once we crossed. Why are you still carrying her in your mind?”

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

When will they learn about...

Charlotte Mason says something along the lines of the point of it all being not that the children can correctly pinpoint who wrote/did what in the age of whom, but to give them a sort of pageantry of the mind, rich in ideas and relationships.

 It's not that the facts don't matter, it's that if the children don't have curiosity, love, interest, if they don't even care, none of the facts really sink in anyway. There are things missing from every history book that are worth of attention, but history is a wide and deep topic and there isn't time to give all topics all the attention they might merit in the school hours alone.

So flesh things out with biographies, visits to local historical sites, include museums and historical marker visits in your itinerary if/when you travel, notice those other opportunities for connections in your reading, and in your living  ( a little goes a long way, don't eat up the hours they should have of free time to explore their own interests).

In my own life, I remember learning most about Balboa when my family visited Balboa park in San Diego as a child perhaps 10 years old. If I had ever heard of him before I did not remember it, but visiting the park gave me a wide eyed discovery of the idea about exploration including botany, and curiosity about the man himself.

 My own kids made their first 'discovery' of Cortez when they read Keats' poem: On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
    Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
    That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
    Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This last stanza was quoted in one of the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome (AO did not then exist, but it is now one of our free reads)- it caught my kids' attention and we looked it up to learn about the poem, the poet, and the people and places he is referring to. Education is not a catalog, it is a discipline, an atmosphere, and a life, and this is how it continues- like circles on a pond or a game of association, a new thing suggests another new thing, and children who have learned to keep their native curiosity go on learning forever. ( I just sidetracked myself looking up multiple references to Ponce de Leon because he was once governor of Darien and may in fact be who Keats should have named instead of Cortez, but perhaps it would have altered his rhyme scheme?)

The atmosphere Mason speaks of is the one we have, the people we are, the home and culture we create when we bring a family together and grow together- so be sure to incorporate that into your days and lives as well, as you discover your own realms of gold in which to travel.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Relations and Affinities

We dabbled in various types of homeschooling for a few years, but there were things that were always part of what I did, and they were there because of reading For the Children's Sake- these were the things that I recall particularly resonated with me:
Poetry (Winnie the Pooh, reciting for grandparents, fourth grade poetry book given to me for Christmas when I in the hospital)
Hymns: acapella tradition, sang hymns at homes and on long car trips.
Classical music- we didn't listen to the radio, but my dad had a number of records (yes, I am so analog), all of them classic. We also had a handful of folk songs in our family repetoire.
Well written books/literature was a constant.
Nature study: My grandmother majored in Botany in the 1920s, when not that many women went to college.  She always showed us the plants and wildflowers on our walks and told us their names.
Education is the science of relations.
Those things appealed to me because they were things I had grown up with- they were, in fact, most the best parts of a childhood that actually wasn't very good, a childhood that, in fact, resulted in two of the three of us emerging into adulthood already loaded by the burden of PTSD from the abuse we endured. And yet those things were there, glimmering beacons of peace and safety in an otherwise extremely painful childhood.
Assuming you are interested in homeschooling and Charlotte Mason, since you are reading this post- why?  Consider that a moment and see if you can trace the causes.
All those things I mentioned, the poetry, the books, the nature study, they resonated with me because I had a relationship, a connection, what Mason calls an 'affinity' for those things- an affinity is a natural connection, a relationship, a sympathetic interest. My interest in homeschooling to begin with was because of a relationship- the relationship I had with my daughter. Then there was the relationship I had with my friend who loaned me For the Children's Sake, and the relationships I built online with other Charlotte Mason homeschoolers,
I am guessing that for most of you, your interest in homeschooling and CM has something to do with some connections and relationships as well, probably both people and subjects. I had a relationship, with poetry and folk songs because somebody took the time to introduce them to me- that's not usually the sort of thing children discover on their own. In my case, and probably yours, these things happened in a somewhat haphazard way. A lot of worthwhile things happen that way, and that's fine. But a Charlotte Mason education is also about having a planned, organized way to help children discover a wide range of topics, activities, subjects, ideas, and skills that they can form a connection, a relationship with, in away that isn't limited only by what we, their parents, already know and like.
You never know what is that will be just the thing a child needs or will connect to, and how he will form those connections.  A child cannot be interested in or pursue relationships with topics and ideas he has never heard of.  That's why there are adults in his life to help him learn about those things.  That's why a CM education is both disciplined and organized and never, ever based on the limitations of what interests you.  But it's also why a CM education incorporates plenty of free time, so the spontaneous connections can also happen.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Just going around in circles, day after day...

Have you ever watched a chicken roam the yard? It wanders here and there, going in circles, darting off after a moth, now a mosquito, now a grasshopper, scratching the earth, rarely looking up.
She spends her days scratching, clucking, wandering in circles, hither and thither.

"Those seeking the life of the spirit should be cheerful and free, and not neglect recreation.

Married people must act in conformity with their vocation~
but their progress will of necessity be but the pace of a hen."

~~Teresa of Avila, who, while theologically we are not on the same page, here I think she's kind of got a point.

Josephine Moffet Benton, in her book The Pace of a Hen, points out that while the hen does not appear to go anywhere, has not have the satisfaction of migrating twice a year as do many of the songbirds, and appears old fashioned and a little ridiculous at times, yet she brings 'forth creation of daily usefulness.'

I like that phrase. Do I live up to it? Do I bring forth creation of daily usefulness? That might be something to ponder in the morning watches or late at night.

And why not go in circles? asks Mrs. Benton. She points out that God created the year in a circle of seasons, the longest trip we can take is to make a circuit around the world, and each day is itself a circle of hours. 
"The very course of blood through our veins and arteries is known as the circulatory system.... Why disparage going around in circles? Any other route suggests imbalance, a jumping-off-place, abyss. Perhaps the hen's pace is a wholesome one in rhythm with the universe."

Do you spend your days spinning your wheels, feeling like you're just going around and around without making progress?

DNA is a spiral- it goes around and around, yet it holds the mysteries of life. Spiral staircases also go around and around in a seemingly tightly circumscribed space. Yet at some point you find that you are moving up- or down.

Make sure your circles are bringing you closer to God and the center of His Will, yes, but don't worry about the fact that they are circles.

PIctured above: an 1896 wallpaper design by William Morris because I like it.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Daily work for the mind

–Do not let the children pass a day without distinct efforts, intellectual, moral, volitional; let them brace themselves to understand; let them compel themselves to do and to bear; and let them do right at the sacrifice of ease and pleasure: and this for many higher reasons, but, in the first and lowest place, that the mere physical organ of mind and will may grow vigorous with work. Charlotte Mason

Sunday, December 8, 2019

My Christmas Tree and TMI

We were supposed to be flying to Malaysia the day after Christmas to begin a two year period of mission work there. As of Nov. 4, when a bomb dropped on my 37 year marriage and shattered it into pieces, we not going to Malaysia. There is no longer a 'we' in that sense. I am still pulling out the shrapnel.

 I am currently living in my American home with my disabled daughter. It's a huge house, four bathrooms, 8 bedrooms plus a small study or office, two stories, a massive great-room upstairs.... It used to be a lot more crowded, but then the godsons moved away and the other six kids moved out, most of them married, and I spent the last year purging stuff I rather liked in preparation for the move to Malaysia (which wasn't my choice of places to go, and which I learned recently was to be the place where I and my daughter would be abandoned while my spouse moved to Taiwan with another woman). So here we are.

 We mainly keep to the master bedroom and bathroom because it's cold and it saves on the electric bill to just keep two rooms cozy enough to endure without wearing enough blankets to make up two beds. She has very small capillaries and doesn't endure cold well at all.  And I prefer some deep safe space at this time in my life.

 Although for decades Christmas was a huge event to me, as you can imagine, this year I am not feeling it. My Christmas things used to take up nearly a dozen of the very largest storage totes. I purged them down to two or three totes before we went to the Philippines. I haven't decorated for Christmas in three Christmases because I did not have access to my things, and now that I do, it's just too much to do, too heavy a weight, too hard. I thought about getting a tree and decorating it, but that was too much to do by myself. It's hard enough to get up and walk thru each day.

And then I saw a picture somebody posted online and then a friend reminded me that I did not choose this and I was ambushed, but God has always known and He is never surprised, my story will be different, but does continue, and that gave birth to an idea, and this is the result:

This is my Christmas tree this year.