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#UNBlack History Facts: "Follow The Drinking Gourd"

February is slowly coming to an end, but we are still hitting you with the UN Black History facts! Have you all ever heard the folksong "Follow The Drinking Gourd?" This "map" song was created by slaves to secretly give freedom seekers escape instructions for the infamous Underground Railroad. The directions helped fleeing slaves travel from Mobile, Alabama to Paducah, Kentucky to the Ohio River, eventually further north to freedom. While the drinking gourd was just a water dipper the slaves used, in the song is used as a code name for The Big Dipper constellation, which connects to the North Star.


See below for interesting facts and a breakdown of the song lyrics.

  • Follow the Drinking Gourd song was first published in 1928

  • Supposedly the song led fugitive slaves to the banks of the Ohio River to meet a conductor on the Underground Railroad by the name of Peg Leg Joe.

  • Peg Leg Joe was allegedly an old sailor who was knowledgeable about the area and knew the best ways to make it the North safely.

  • The term "Ole man" is used in the song's chorus and it is nautical slang for a captain.

  • The lyrics state, "Dead trees will show you the way," which refers to the charcoal/mud markings Peg Leg Joe left on nearby trees to help guide the slaves to a safe destination.

  • Follow the Drinking Gourd became very popular during the Civil Rights movement when Alamanc singer and weaver Lee Hayes reworked the song.

  • The song inspired many children's books that vividly illustrate the escape route.

Courtesy of the followthedrinkinggourd.org, please see the lyric breakdown.


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.


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