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Follow the Drinking Gourd

Perhaps no song is more closely associated with the Underground Railroad than this one.

To follow the North Star was the message embedded in this spiritual; instructions are included in the song to follow the points of the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper) to the brightest star, which is the North Star.

The Story Behind the Song

A one-legged sailor, known as Peg Leg Joe, worked at various jobs on plantations as he made his way around the South. At each job, he would become friendly with the slaves and teach them the words to the song, Follow the Drinking Gourd. Each spring following Peg Leg Joe’s visit to these plantations, many young men would be missing from those plantations.

Peg Leg Joe’s plantation visits focused on the area north of Mobile, Alabama, around 1859. The escape route travelled north to the headwaters of the Tombigbee River, through the divide, and then down the Tennessee River to the Ohio River. To guide the slaves along the way, the trail was marked with the outline of a human left foot and a round circle in place of the right foot.

The trip from the South to Ohio took most refugees a full year, so they were encouraged to leave in the winter to make it to the Ohio River the following winter. As the Ohio is too fast and too wide to swim across, it was best crossed in winter when it was frozen.

The first verse instructs slaves to leave in the winter—“When the sun comes back” refers to winter and spring when the altitude of the sun at noon is higher each day. Quail, a migratory bird, spends the winter in the South. The “drinking gourd” refers to the Big Dipper, “the old man” means Peg Leg Joe, and “the great big river” refers to the Ohio River.

The second verse told slaves to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north. They were to look for dead trees marked with the drawings of a left foot and a round mark, denoting a peg leg. In the third verse, the hidden message instructed the slaves to continue north over the hills when they reached the Tombigbee’s headwaters. From there, they were to travel along another river—the Tennessee. There were several Underground Railroad routes that met up on the Tennessee.

Slaves were told the Tennessee joined another river in the song’s last verse. Once they crossed that river, a guide would meet them on the north bank and guide them on the rest of their journey to freedom.

Lyrics:

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, travelling 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 to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.


 

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