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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History

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Appendix

Teachers' Guide to Follow the Drinking Gourd

Follow the Drinking Gourd supposedly encodes escape instructions and a map. The "drinking gourd" refers to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. In this song, it serves as a code name for the Big Dipper. The song's directions enabled fleeing slaves to make their way north from Mobile, Alabama to the Ohio River and freedom.

The song was originally published in 1928. The author, H.B. Parks, claimed that an Underground Railroad operative, known as Peg Leg Joe, moved from plantation to plantation just north of the Mobile, Alabama area working as a journeyman laborer. This work was a front for Joe's true task: teaching slaves the Drinking Gourd song and marking an escape route.

Lee Hays, a founder of the Almanac Singers and The Weavers, published an arrangement of the song in 1947. This arrangement changed the lyrics from black vernacular speech to standard English, and added a chorus and the signature line, "For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom" (which seems quite overt rather than coded.) It is this version that is used, often without attribution, almost universally today. It appears in Jeanette Winter's Follow the Drinking Gourd, Bernardine Connelly's book of the same name and F.N. Monjo's The Drinking Gourd. In other words, it is not possible that escaping slaves sang, "For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom", since that line was written 80 years after the end of the Civil War.

Teaching the Song to Elementary and Middle School Students

Some of the very characteristics that make the Drinking Gourd song a superb teaching case for high school and college students may well just baffle younger students. For instance, do you tell them that the lyrics we sing today were not actually sung by escaping slaves?

If you teach the Jeanette Winter picture book, consider explaining that it is just one account out of many thousands of escapes, and depicts a series of unusual circumstances.  Most slaves escaping from the Deep South did not head north. Also, most escapees were men, traveling solo or with one other companion. Family groups were relatively unusual. Contact with Underground Railroad conductors in slave territory, especially in the Deep South, was extremely rare. This is all quite a lot to get across to youngsters! (As one sixth grade student teacher wrote, "Children have such a hard time understanding that the Underground Railroad is not a train tunnel...")

Explanation of the Lee Hays Arrangement (published 1947)

The following explanations are drawn principally from the H.B. Parks article, supplemented by additional research.

LYRICS EXPLANATION
VERSE 1 Taken together, this verse suggests escaping in the spring and heading North to freedom.
When the sun comes back, Refers to the winter or spring. The days are getting longer, and the angle of the sun is higher each day at noon.
and the first quail calls, Refers to the breeding season. Quail in Alabama start calling to each other in early to mid-April.
Follow the drinking gourd The "drinking gourd" alludes to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. Used in this context it is a code name for the Big Dipper star formation, which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and North.
The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom "Ole man" is nautical slang for "Captain" (or "Commanding Officer.") According to Parks, the Underground Railroad operative Peg Leg Joe was formerly a sailor. Per one of Parks's informants, the runaways would be met on the banks of the Ohio by the old sailor. Of course, the chances that Peg Leg Joe himself would be there to meet every escapee (as depicted literally in the children's books) are quite small.
If you follow the drinking gourd.  
CHORUS  
Follow the drinking gourd,  
Follow the drinking gourd,  
For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom  
If you follow the drinking gourd.  
VERSE 2 Describes how to follow the route, from Mobile, Alabama north.
The river bank will make a mighty good road The first river in the song is the Tombigbee, which empties into Mobile Bay. Its headwaters extend into northeastern Mississippi.
The dead trees show you the way According to Parks, Peg Leg Joe marked trees and other landmarks "with charcoal or mud of the outline of a human left foot and a round spot in place of the right foot." (Note)
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
Follow the drinking gourd.  
CHORUS  
VERSE 3 Describes the route through northeastern Mississippi and into Tennessee.
The river ends between two hills, The headwaters of the Tombigbee River end near Woodall Mountain, the high point in Mississippi and an ideal reference point for a map song. The "two hills" could mean Woodall Mountain and a neighboring lower hill. But the mountain itself evidently has a twin cone profile and so could represent both hills at once.
Follow the drinking gourd,  
There's another river on the other side, The river on the other side of the hills is the Tennessee, which extends outward in an arc above Woodall Mountain. The left-hand side proceeds virtually due north to the Ohio river border with Illinois definitely the preferred route, since the right hand side meanders back into northern Alabama and then proceeds up into Tennessee.
Follow the drinking gourd.  
CHORUS  
VERSE 4 Describes the end of the route, in Paducah, Kentucky.
Where the great big river meets the little river When the Ohio River meets the Tennessee. The Tennessee and Ohio rivers come together in Paducah, KY, opposite southern Illinois. Note that the order of the rivers has been switched, most likely for poetic reasons.
Follow the drinking gourd ...meets the Ohio River. The Tennessee and Ohio rivers come together in Paducah, KY, opposite southern Illinois.
The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom  
If you follow the drinking gourd.  

 

Drinking Gourd route: view from the "Two Hills"

View from the top of Woodall Mountain.

Alternate Lyrics

Some teachers may find the lyric "the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom" problematic. It unwittingly belittles the accomplishments of the freedom seekers who, after all, freed themselves after a brave escape through hundreds of miles of hostile territory. Perhaps a change in lyrics, bringing the song closer to the 1928 original, could partially address this issue. The fourth verse of the Parks 1928 version reads as follows:

Wha the little riva
Meet the grea' big un,
The ole man waits--
Foller the drinkin' gou'd.

Lee Hays incorporated the "ole man waits" into his first verse and chorus as follows:

The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd

Consider changing the two lines as follows:

The old man is awaiting if you steal away to freedom
And you follow the drinking gourd

The lyrics would then read as follows:

VERSE 1

When the sun comes back,
and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd
The old man is awaiting if you steal away to freedom
And you follow the drinking gourd

CHORUS

Follow the drinking gourd,
Follow the drinking gourd,
For the old man is awaiting if you steal away to freedom
And you follow the drinking gourd

VERSE 2 (No change)

The river bank will make a mighty good road
The dead trees show you the way
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
Follow the drinking gourd.

CHORUS

VERSE 3 (No change)

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

CHORUS

VERSE 4

Where the little river meets the great big river
Follow the drinking gourd
The old man is awaiting if you steal away to freedom
And you follow the drinking gourd.

(This edit also changes the order of the rivers back to the Parks original.) Of course, these new lyrics were never sung in the pre-Civil War South either, and they are no more "encoded" than are the Hays lyrics one issue at a time! But they do let you teach the song with a minimum of changes.

The Music

A version of the song scanned from the Jeanette Winter picture book is available here. (Adobe Reader may be downloaded here at no charge.)

Guitar chords may be found here.

Astronomy Information and Activities

Slaves' geographic knowledge was often sketchy, and of course it was in their "owners" best interest to keep it that way. Knowledge of even the basics, such as the sun seeming to rise in the east and set in the west, was by no means universal. ("Georgia slave John Brown ran away several times before he finally succeeded in reaching freedom. One time... thinking he was traveling north, he walked almost all the way to New Orleans...[1]) Some slaves learned that moss grew on the north side of trees (since moss prefers shade and the south side gets more sun.) And by far the best way to navigate at night is via the stars, specifically Polaris, the North Star.

The North Star is not very bright or easy to find by itself. Polaris is usually located by first finding the much brighter Big Dipper formation and the two stars that make up the outer edge of the bowl opposite the handle the "pointer stars." Draw an imaginary line from the bottom star past the upper star, and Polaris sits roughly five times the distance between these two stars. See here for an activity on locating the Big Dipper.

Other astronomy information and classroom activities may be found at the following NASA webpages:

Elementary School

Size and Colors of Stars
     Background and Instructions

Middle School

Plotting some Underground Railroad routes
    
Instructions
    
Worksheet One
    
Worksheet Two
    
Answer Key

High School

Plotting the position of the sun at noon on the solstices and equinoxes
     Instructions
     Worksheet One
     Worksheet Two

For More Information

There is additional material for teachers on the song here. Reviews of the children's books based on the song are found here. This information is excerpted from a lengthier cultural history of the Drinking Gourd song. Please see here for more information.

Notes

Follow the Drinking Gourd: Home Page

 

Copyright 2008 - 2012, Joel Bresler.
All Rights Reserved.

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