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A song used by slaves to describe the path to the North. The "drinking gourd" being, of course, the big dipper, which points to the north star. Children of slaves would be taught the song and the meaning behind it, the song being something of a collective mnemonic device.

When the Sun comes back
And the first quail calls1
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man2 is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

The riverbank3 makes a very good road.
The dead trees will show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,4
Follow the Drinking Gourd.

The river ends between two hills
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
There's another river on the other side5
Follow the Drinking Gourd.

When the great big river meets the little river6
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.
  1. On the winter solstice the Sun rises in the southeast. In the months after the December solstice the Sun rises more northerly and ascends higher in the sky each day. Migratory quail winter in the south.
  2. the old man is Peg Leg Joe, an itenerant white carpenter and secret conductor on the underground railroad. He spent his winters in the south, traveling from farm to farm offering carpentry services, and while employed there would give the slaves escape instructions. He is often cited as the author of this song.
  3. the Tombigbee River, leading northward from the Gulf of Mexico toward Tennessee.
  4. Dead trees were used as markers with charcoal and mud drawings of a peg leg and a foot.
  5. Tennessee River, which flows northward across Tennessee and Kentucky.
  6. That is, at the confluence of the Tennessee River and the Ohio River (over 800 miles north of Mobile, Alabama), where Underground Railroad guides would meet fugitive slaves on the northern bank and transport them to safer regions. A slave who left a farm or plantation in southern Alabama or Mississippi in the winter (see note 1) would arrive at the Ohio river about a year later--the best time to cross, when one could simply walk across the ice.

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