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Follow the Drinking Gourd

Imagine taking a trip of hundreds of miles, on foot, without a map in hand to guide you. Of course, even if you had a map it would be unlikely that you could read it. This scenario may seem bleak, but thousands of African-Americans faced just such a trip before the Civil War.These escaping slaves sought their freedom in the northern states and Canada by reaching the terminals of the Underground Railroad along the borders between free and slave-holding states.

Map of the Underground Railroad RoutesWhile these people did not have a map to guide them, they did have a song that served as a verbal rendition of a map. The song, entitled "Follow the Drinking Gourd," refers to the constellation called the Big Dipper, whose end stars, the "pointers," guide one's gaze to Polaris, the North Star. The song, considered a coded reference to the route north to freedom, was taught to the slaves on southern plantations by an itinerant carpenter named Peg Leg Joe.


Follow the Drinking Gourd

When the Sun comes back
and the first quail calls
Follow the Drinking Gourd
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry
you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

The riverbank makes a very good road.
The dead trees will show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,
Follow the Drinking Gourd.

The river ends between two hills
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
There's another river on the other side
Follow the Drinking Gourd.

When the great big river meets the little river
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry
you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

Follow the Drinking Gourd, follow the
Drinking gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry
you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.


Big DipperThe various verses of the song are filled with information about the best time of year to set out, the route to follow, and the landmarks to observe along the way. As detailed in the song, the escaping slaves started their trip in the vicinity of Alabama's Tombigbee River, and traveled by an overland connection to the Tennessee River, and then to the Ohio River. Winter was the best time to venture forth, as Polaris was high in the sky and easily observable through the canopies of the forests through which much of the trip took place. Winter was also the best time to reach the Ohio River, the last major obstacle for those attempting to reach free territory. The river often froze and served as a bridge to freedom.

The employment of the song for the transmission of information about the escape route was a clever application of a cultural attribute. As a component of the oral tradition of cultural transmission, song was traditionally used by Africans in their daily labors. Slaveholders did not interfere with this African practice in the South; after all, it seemed harmless, and singing facilitated the labors of the fieldhands. Perhaps if they had taken time to understand the people whom they had enslaved, the slaveholders would have recognized the song's message as one of hope in a free life, rather than as one of submission to their current lot.

(Based on: The Stars of Freedom by Gloria D. Rall. Sky & Telescope, 89:2, 1995, pp.36-38.)

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