Gone to Kansas


In the years after Reconstruction in the South, ex-slaves soon learned that though they were now ostensibly free, many white Southerners were doing everything in their power to keep blacks powerless, immobilized and landless. Blacks began to look to Kansas, the home of John Brown before the Civil War and a center of abolitionist sentiment, as a modern Canaan, a God-appointed home for the African race. Beginning in the 1860s, thousands of blacks began to migrate to Kansas where they believed they would achieve prosperity and become truly free at last. The town of Nicodemus in Graham County, Kan., for instance, was founded by black Kentuckians in the 1870s.

The largest wave of black migration to Kansas began in 1879 and continued into the 1880s. This group largely from the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas, called themselves "Exodusters," comparing themselves to the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament. Though they encountered difficulties not only in getting to Kansas, but also in settling in a place that proved to be no land of milk and honey, most blacks believed it to be infinitely preferable to living in the South.

Of course, not all Southern blacks chose to go to Kansas. Some refused to go out of fear of the unknown. As one ex-slave wrote, "I have a littel place and i Dont want to Brake up to Do better and Do worse." Some were simply reluctant to forsake their old homes, as was the freedman who said, "We feel sorry to think that we have to leave our fathers', mothers', wives' and children's dust and flee into other states to make a living."

This unusual song conveys the view of an ex-slave who chooses to stay in the South even as his neighbors vacate their homes to go to the Kansas "Promised Land." Dave and Cathy learned it from the fine singer Sara Grey, who learned it from the field recording of traditional balladeer Everett Pitt from New Jersey. Originally called "De Little Cabins All Am Empty Now," the song was written as a dialect piece by Thomas P. Westendorfer in 1881, with a different melody than the one sung by Pitt and Sara Grey. How a song written in a lively major key came to have this sorrowful Irish-sounding tune is a mystery, but we prefer this setting. It conveys the feelings of fear and loneliness experienced by the narrator, and provides an appropriate moody conclusion to our song collection, and to what was a devastating, terrible Civil War and Reconstruction on the Western Border.

Oh, this heart of mine am breaking with grief 'tis granted now,
And I never will be happy any more.
There are cabins in the valley, and cabins on the hill,
And the green grass is growing ‘round the door.
Can't you hear the owls a-hooting in the darkness of the night?
It brings a drop of sweat out on my brow.
Oh, I feel so awful lonesome, I fear I'll die from fright,
Since the little cabins all are empty now.

Oh, they say they've gone to Kansas, where they say there's better times,
But they will have to learn how to plow
Just the same as in old Dixie, where they're wont to win their dimes;
What's the use of living when there ain't no joy combined?

Oh, the little 'tater patches are growing high with weeds;
The melon vines they all have gone to waste;
And the melons that were on them have rotted off and died,
'Cause there's no one left around to get a taste.

© Big Canoe Records, 1995