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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History

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What the Lyrics Mean

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

H.B. Parks Version

LYRICS EXPLANATION
VERSE 1 Taken together, this verse suggests escaping in the spring and heading North to freedom.
When the sun come back, Refers to the winter or spring. The days are getting longer, and the angle of the sun is higher each day at noon.
When the firs' quail call, Refers to the breeding season. Quail in Alabama start calling to each other in early to mid-April.
Then the time is come  
Foller the drinkin' gou'd. The "drinkin' gou'd" alludes to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. Used here it is a code name for the Big Dipper star formation, which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and North.
CHORUS  
Foller the drinkin' gou'd,  
Foller the drinkin' gou'd;  
For the ole man say, "Ole man" is nautical slang for "Captain" (or "Commanding Officer.") According to Parks, the Underground Railroad operative Peg Leg Joe was formerly a sailor.
"Foller the drinkin' gou'd."  
VERSE 2 Describes how to follow the route, from Mobile, Alabama north.
The riva's bank am a very 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 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." (1)
Lef' foot, peg foot goin' on,
Foller the drinkin' gou'd.  
CHORUS  
VERSE 3 Describes the route through northeastern Mississippi and into Tennessee.
The riva ends a-tween 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.
Foller the drinkin' gou'd;  
'Nuther riva 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.
Follers the drinkin' gou'd.  
CHORUS  
VERSE 4 Describes the end of the route, in Paducah, Kentucky.
Wha the little riva When the Tennessee...
Meet the grea' big un, ...meets the Ohio River. The Tennessee and Ohio rivers come together in Paducah, KY, opposite southern Illinois.
The ole man waits-- 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.
Foller the drinkin' gou'd.  

(Stand-alone lyrics here.)

Drinking Gourd route: view from the "Two Hills"

View from the top of Woodall Mountain. (Source)

Parks also reports hearing a different chorus in Waller Texas in 1918:

ALTERNATE LYRICS EXPLANATION
Foller the Risen Lawd,
Foller the Risen Lawd;
The bes' thing the Wise Man say,
"Foller the Risen Lawd."
Parks believed the Drinking Gourd lyrics came first, and the Risen Lord lyrics followed. Lee Hays believed that Risen Lord was a revivalist hymn and that it came first, followed in turn by the Drinking Gourd song. (See the Hays version, immediately below.)

Lee Hays Arrangement

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 here 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." (1)
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  
The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom  
If you follow the drinking gourd.  

(Stand-alone lyrics here.)

Drinking Gourd lyrics by Lee Hays

Undated memo from Lee Hays to Pete Seeger in Lee Hays's papers at the Smithsonian. Hays notes, "This song is a mixture of what I remember as pieced out by the Lomax song. I heard it in 1916-1920, thereabouts, from Aunty Laura, my nurse."

John Woodum Version

LYRICS EXPLANATION
VERSE 1  
When the sun goes down Vs. "Sun comes back" in the original, which indicates time of year.
And the first quail call In the original, refers to the breeding season. With the word change in line one, this lyric cannot have the same meaning.
Follow the drinkin' gourd The "drinking gourd" alludes to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. Used here it is a code name for the Big Dipper star formation, which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and North.
Then it's time, children  
to come one and all and  
Follow the drinkin' gourd  
CHORUS  
Follow the drinkin' gourd,  
Follow the drinkin' gourd  
There's a roadsign in heaven  
On that muddy path to freedom  
Follow the drinkin' gourd  
VERSE 2  
Pegfoot gonna show you the way According to Parks, the one-legged Peg Leg Joe was an Underground Railroad operative who 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." (1)
Follow the drinkin' gourd  
Keep on movin' the Old Man say "Ole man" is nautical slang for "Captain" (or "Commanding Officer.") According to Parks, the Underground Railroad operative Peg Leg Joe was formerly a sailor.
Follow the drinkin' gourd  
CHORUS  
VERSE 3  
Think I hear the angels say Another possible source. (2)
Follow the drinkin' gourd  
Stars in the heaven gonna show you the way Another possible source. (3)
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
CHORUS  

(Stand-alone lyrics here.)

Woodum's third verse is essentially the same as the beginning of the first verse of the Randy Sparks arrangement below. Other Woodum phrases used by Sparks include "muddy path to freedom" and "keep on movin'".

Drinking Gourd lyrics by John Woodum

 

Drinking Gourd lyrics by John Woodum

Randy Sparks's field notes from Bossier City (across the Red River from Shreveport, Louisiana) dated September 9th (1955.) Reprinted with permission. 

Randy Sparks Arrangement

LYRICS EXPLANATION
CHORUS 1  
Follow the drinkin' gourd, we gonna "Follow the Drinking Gourd" is from the Woodum original. The "drinking gourd" alludes to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. Used here it is a code name for the Big Dipper star formation, which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and North.
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
Oo-oo-oo-waa,  
Follow the drinkin' gourd  
VERSE 1  
Think I heard the angels say, From the Woodum original. See another possible source here.
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
Stars in the heaven gonna show you the way, From the Woodum original. See another possible source here.
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
   
Step by step keep a'travelin' on  
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
Sleep in the holler 'til the daylight is gone,  
Follow the drinkin' gourd  
CHORUS 2  
Follow the drinkin' gourd, we gonna  
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
Keep on travelin' that muddy road to freedom, The original read, "muddy path to freedom."
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
VERSE 2  
There's a good day comin' and it won't be long,  
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
All God's children gotta sing this song,  
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
   
Follow that river 'til the clouds roll by,  
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
Keep on movin' better look to the sky, "Keep on movin'" is from the original.
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
CHORUS 3  
Follow the drinkin' gourd, we gonna  
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
There's a little bit of heaven in that muddy road to freedom, The original read, "muddy path to freedom."
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  
Step by step keep a'travelin' on,  
Follow the drinkin' gourd.  

(Stand-alone lyrics here.)

Randy Sparks wrote me, "my thinking on (omitting) 'the first quail call' lyric likely had to do with the fact that this sounded like an error to me. It still does. I'm into birds, heavily, and the first quail calls in the morning, not after dark. My experience has been that they're damned quiet after the sun goes down, as they don't want to give away their roosting location. That line made no sense to me." (Sparks is correct about quail behavior, see note. The Woodum lyrics diverge here from the Parks version.) He was also trying to avoid much overlap with the Weavers' lyrics, "Another reason for staying away from it, I would say, likely had to do with not wanting to include any material from the Weavers' recording, which I had heard by the time we approached the song."

Notes

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Copyright 2008 - 2012, Joel Bresler.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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