Follow The Drinking Gourd

arr. Paul Jennings

Like many old songs, there are various stories tied to this song. Probably the most prevalent is that there was an itinerant carpenter named Peg Leg Joe who traveled each winter throughout the south, moving from plantation to plantation. In each new location, he taught the song to the slaves. Buried in the lyrics of the song are instructions for escaping to the north.

In code, the "drinking gourd" stood for the Big Dipper, the well-known constellation which it resembles. They follow it, for it always points to the North Star, which can guide them north as they travel at night, the safest time. Other verses go into greater detail about following the river banks and which way to go as they head north. These specific lyrics were most appropriate for escaping north up the Tennessee River and crossing the Ohio River.

Our recording provides one of several similar sets of lyrics, and is arranged in a singable folk style. The ensemble accompanying it includes several types of guitar, banjo, and a virtuoso harmonica player. Of course, in the 1800s, this song would most often have been sung a cappella or with simple percussion and clapping. You can perform it either way or just use the recording as a listening resource. You can also copy the reproducible page (page 77) for your students as needed.

Also if you have Music K-8, Vol. 2, No. 3, there is a superb article on the music of the Underground Railroad by Kim Harris and Judith Cook Tucker, complete with music and recordings. We can also recommend the CD Steal Away: Songs Of The Underground Railroad by Kim and Reggie Harris, distributed by Appleseed Records.

Text is taken from Music K-8 magazine.