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“Follow the Drinking Gourd”—African American Spiritual

African American spirituals are religious folk songs created by African Americans. The lyrics can help us understand the life of African Americans during the time when the songs were sung. Read the African American spiritual shown below. It is called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”


Primary Source


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.

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.

Source: Traditional African American spiritual.


Background

“Follow the Drinking Gourd” was a song created by enslaved African Americans. The song was actually a code of directions explaining how to escape from the southern slave states. The code told people who understood it when to leave, where to travel, and how far to go on each part of the journey. Each lyric has a specific meaning. “The drinking gourd” was the Big Dipper, a constellation that points the way to the North. The “old man” and “peg foot” was someone from the Underground Railroad who met escaping slaves at the Ohio River. “When the sun comes back and the first quail calls” meant to begin the journey in the winter. Enslaved people passed the directions along by singing this song to each other.


Web Resource

Madison Metropolitan School District
The school district's Planetarium Web site gives the music to “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”
http://www.madison.k12.wi.us/planetarium/ftdgsong.pdf