Decoding the song

The Drinking Gourd
The Drinking Gourd. Click here for full sized image.

Follow the drinking gourd!
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.

The old man referred to was Peg Leg Joe, a carpenter with a wooden left 'peg leg', because he had lost his left leg. We have no information of him, other than he spent his time in the South during winter, teaching the slaves this escape route.

The Drinking Gourd is the familiar Big Dipper. The Big Dipper, other than having a cute name, is famous for its two pointer stars (Dubhe and Merak) that "point" to the North Star. By following the direction of the pointers, slaves knew which direction to run.

Click here to view the Drinking Gourd and the North Star.

Click here for another view. Notice that the Drinking Gourd can be above the North Star too.

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd, 
For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.

This actually told the slaves to begin their journey of following the North Star as soon as they heard quails around them. This would have corresponded to the period just after December solstice, when the quails migrate southwards and also when the length of daylight starts getting longer, the shortest day having occurred at the winter solstice itself.

But why start the journey in winter? The reason is because the slaves have to cross the Ohio River which is too wide and too swift to swim across. The ingenious method thought was to cross the river during winter, when it was frozen and slaves could simply walk across, on the ice! It took about a year to reach the Ohio from the south and slaves are encouraged to start their journey one winter earlier to meet the next winter deadline.

The riverbank makes a very good road,
The dead trees will show you the way,
Left foot, peg foot traveling on,
Following the drinking gourd.

The river bank here is the river bank of the Tombigbee River in Mississippi. Many north-south rivers flow into the Tombigbee, thus dead trees marked with a left foot and a peg foot enabled the slaves to identify the Tombigbee. Also by following the dead trees along the riverbank, the slaves would be assured of a safe journey free from hounds and hunters.

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

When the Tombigbee ended, the slaves were told to continue north, over the hills, until they met the river Tennessee.

Where the great big river meets the little river,
Follow the drinking gourd,
The old man is waiting to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd

The Ohio River joined the Tennessee River and the slaves had to cross the Ohio River. The Ohio River was actually the border between slave territory and free territory. Hopefully the slaves managed to cross it during winter. Once across, they'll receive help from people of the Underground Railroad.

Click here to see a map and have a rough idea ot the routes.

Here are some links to "Follow the Drinking Gourd audio files:
"Follow the Drinking Gourd" - midi format
"Follow the Drinking Gourd" - ram format
"Follow the Drinking Gourd" - mp3 format
"Follow the Drinking Gourd" - mp3 file, by "The Weavers"

1. Paths to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad
2. Educator's Guide to "Follow the Drinking Gourd"