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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History



Follow the Drinking Gourd Timeline

ca. 1873

Mary Austin writes in her autobiography Earth Horizon that as a girl of five or six she heard a black man, Moses W. Drakeford, sing "Foller de drinkin’-gou'd!" in her hometown of Carlinville, Illinois.


H.B. Parks reports hearing the song sung by a young black boy in the mountains in Hot Springs, North Carolina (on the Tennessee border.)


H.B. Parks says he heard a negro fisherman, on the wharf in Louisville, Kentucky "singing the same stanza on the same tune."

ca. 1916 to 1920

Lee Hays, living in Forrest City, Arkansas (about 150 miles due west from the source of the Tombigbee) reports hearing Follow the Drinking Gourd sung by his "Aunty" Laura.


In 1918 Parks describes standing on at the Waller, Texas train depot. and hearing two black adolescents sing the Drinking Gourd tune with the lyrics, "Foller the Risen Lawd." 


In the decade between hearing the song in Waller and publishing it, Parks meets "an old Negro at College Station, Texas, who had known a great many slaves in his boyhood days" who explained the song to him. 


Follow the Drinking Gourd is first published by H.B. Parks in a publication of the Texas Folklore Society.

Drinking Gourd, American Ballads and Folk Songs, Lomaxes, 19341934

The Parks version of the account and song are reprinted in American Ballads and Folk Songs by John A. and Alan Lomax.


Frances Gaither publishes Follow the Drinking Gourd, a novel based in part on the song.


Carl Carmer publishes a version of the song in America Sings, oriented towards a young audience. No explanation of the text was included in this book, nor any source information.


An arrangement of Follow the Drinking Gourd runs in People's Songs, with the attribution: "The version is from Lee Hays, who as a child heard it this way from his nurse, Aunty Laura." Hays makes the language considerably more poetic, and adds the line, "The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom." Drinking Gourd, Treasury of Southern Folklore, B.A. Botkin, 1949


B.A. Botkin included the song in his Treasury of Southern Folklore. Botkin reprinted the entire Parks article without most of the original lyrics or any of the original music. Botkin then appended the Hays arrangement – both lyrics and music – to the bottom of the redacted Parks text.

Drinking Gourd, Songs of America..., Weavers, 19511951

The song's first recording, by the Weavers, is released on Decca album Folk Songs of America and Other Lands in 45 rpm, 78 rpm and LP formats. The Hays arrangement was also published in The Weavers Sing songbook in a version nearly identical to that from People's Songs. (Listen)►


In 1955, singer Randy Sparks hears street singer John Woodum singing the song in Bossier City, Louisiana (near Shreveport.)


The first commercially recorded rendition by black artists, Michel Larue and Alex Foster, is released. (Listen)►

Lorraine Hansberry submitted her Drinking Gourd teleplay script to NBC. The script included the song and scenes based on it, while dealing with the corrosive effects of slavery. The network shelved it.

Drinking Gourd is included in the pamphlet, Songs for the March on Washington.
The Randy Sparks arrangement is released by The New Christy Minstrels, on Ramblin'. (Listen)►

The Drinking Gourd by F.N. (Ferdinand Nicholas) Monjo, an I CAN READ history book, is published.

Lorraine Hansberry's The Drinking Gourd is staged at the Harlem Community Center for the Arts

Jeanette Winter's Follow the Drinking Gourd picture book appears, followed by audio and video versions, and a Reading Rainbow television show hosted by LeVar Burton.

The Rabbit Ears Follow the Drinking Gourd VHS tape (with script by Bernardine Connelly and illustrations by Yvonne Buchanan) is released.

Planetarium show and the accompanying Educator's Guide are released.
Article entitled "The Stars of Freedom" by Gloria D. Rall runs in Sky & Telescope magazine.
Lorraine Hansberry's The Drinking Gourd is staged at the University of Northern Iowa.

Follow the Drinking Gourd by Bernardine Connelly (illustrations by Yvonne Buchanan) is released in book form.

Drinking Gourd,  Long Road to Freedom, 20011998
Web version of the Educator's Guide is hosted by the Madison, Wisconsin Metropolitan School District. (Removed in 2007. The site is archived here, here and here.)

Leon Bibb's version, recorded Fall, 1962 is finally released. This is the only version with lyrics based on the Parks original. (Listen)►

46 years after rejecting Lorraine Hansberry's Drinking Gourd script, NBC airs an episode of the television reality show Treasure Hunters featuring the Drinking Gourd song. Contestants enter New York City's Atlantic Avenue Tunnel and read the song lyrics on the wall. More details here.

Professor James B. Kelley (Mississippi State University) publishes the first article to analyze the song in a scholarly journal:  "Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual 'Follow the Drinking Gourd.' "


Carlinville, Illinois (reportedly heard by Mary Austin ca. 1873. Also the birthplace and hometown of H.B. Parks)

Hot Springs, North Carolina (collected by H.B. Parks in 1912)

Louisville, Kentucky (collected by H.B. Parks in 1913)

Waller, Texas (collected by H.B. Parks in 1918)

College Station, Texas (local informant explains the song to H.B. Parks, ca. 1918 – 1928)

Forrest City, Arkansas (Lee Hays learns the song from his "Aunty" Laura, ca. 1916 – 1920)

Bossier City, Louisiana (near Shreveport) (collected by Randy Sparks in 1955)

Mobile Bay, Alabama (where the Tombigbee River empties into the Bay. Peg Leg Joe was said to be active just to the north)

Iuka, Mississippi (the site of Woodall Mountain, near the headwaters of the Tombigbee, and possibly one or both of the "two hills" mentioned in the song)

Paducah, Kentucky (confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, where slaves were said to cross into free territory)

Google Maps Gazetteer of Follow the Drinking Gourd

Please click here to view this map interactively in a separate window.

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