Follow the Drinking Gourd:
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.
View from the top of Woodall Mountain.
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:
Lee Hays incorporated the "ole man waits" into his first verse and chorus as follows:
Consider changing the two lines as follows:
The lyrics would then read as follows:
(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.
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...) 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:
Size and Colors of Stars
- 2012, Joel Bresler.