The drinking gourd and the Underground Railroad

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 26, 2004


The anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was Jan. 1. The birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was celebrated on Jan. 19, and Black History Month will be observed in February. One of the most interesting aspects of Black History is that of the Underground Railroad, over which an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 slaves found their way to freedom during the decades of its operation. To this day, secrecy surrounds much of its operation.

It is known that the Underground Railroad existed at least as early as the 18th century; however, it was from 1830 through the Civil War that this network, organized to assist escaped slaves travel to freedom, gained prominence. Free blacks, some whites and sometimes other slaves served as conductors, providing stations, giving food, clothing and shelter along the routes to the northern United States and Canada.

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Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Levi Coffin, Sojourner Truth and Peg Leg Joe were the principal conductors for the escaped slaves, who traveled mostly at night. When the stars were not visible, they found their way by feeling for tree markings, made to guide them.

Communication between conductors and slaves was through songs with strong biblical references, an effective means because slave owners did not know the songs were coded and because most slaves were illiterate. For many slaves held in Alabama and Mississippi, clues from the location of certain groups of stars in the night sky pointed the way north as surely as a compass.

Clues to how to reach the North were camouflaged in a remarkable song called &uot;Follow the Drinking Gourd.&uot; Well-known in Alabama and Mississippi, the song lapsed into obscurity until a North Carolina folklorist heard it, researched it and wrote about it in a folklore journal.

An itinerant carpenter named &uot;Peg Leg Joe,&uot; who was connected with the Underground Railroad, spent each winter in the South, moving from plantation to plantation teaching the song to slaves, thus enabling them to find their way North, according to J.B. Parks..

In 1944 B.A. Botkin found Parks’ article and published it in &uot;A Treasury of Southern Folklore.&uot;

The words of the song and the interpretation are:

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.

These words told slaves to start their trip north in late winter or early spring. The sun comes back after winter solstice and migratory quail winter in the South and begin calling in early spring. The Drinking Gourd is the Big Dipper, a constellation of seven stars in the northern sky, which they were to walk toward.

The river bank makes a very good road,

The dead trees will show you the way.

Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,

Follow the Drinking Gourd.

The Tombigbee River reaches from the Gulf Coast of Alabama to Northern Mississippi, so the escaped slaves were instructed to travel north along its banks, where dead trees would bear the markings sketched in charcoal of a left foot and a peg foot.

The river ends between two hills,

Follow the Drinking Gourd.

There’s another river on the other side,

Follow the Drinking Gourd.

Thus, the travelers were told to go beween hills to the Tennessee River, which winds north across Tennessee and Kentucky and empties into the Ohio River.

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.

On the north bank of the Ohio was Illinois, a free state, and there somebody waited to escort them into the better-organized part of the railroad. But more assistance was needed so Underground Railroad workers secretly moved into the South as guides, an estimated 500 by the beginning of the Civil War.

Their operations were so shrouded in secrecy that the &uot;Drinking Gourd&uot; is the only known description of an entire route, which from Mobile to the mouth of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers is about 800 miles.

Traveling along the winding rivers, however, almost doubled the distance, so escaping slaves from the Deep South may have needed a year to reach freedom.

Other songs were sung by those seeking freedom but none were so specific as the &uot;Drinking Gourd. &uot;Among these still sung today are &uot;Steal Away,&uot;

&uot;Go down, Moses,&uot; &uot;Deep River&uot; and &uot;Swing Low Sweet Chariot.&uot;

Information for this article comes from &uot;A Treasury of Southern Folklore&uot; by B.A. Botkin; &uot;Hippocrena Guide to the Underground Railroad&uot; by Charles Blockson; &uot;Escape from Slavery: The Underground Railroad&uot; from National Geographic, July 1984; &uot;Follow the Drinking Gourd&uot; by Jeanette Winter, a children’s book: and a Washington Post article entitled &uot;Song of Liberty&uot; written in 1995 by Gloria Rall.